Does state violate Constitution in its candidate rules?

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Another election year is upon us, and you may have been reading stories about the various candidates who have filed for a chance to hold public office in Montana.

I intended to be one of those candidates, having filed for the Legislature in House District 15, the district I reside in. The Montana secretary of state would not accept my application.

I am qualified to be a candidate for the Legislature, as I understand the Montana Constitution, and to have my name printed on the ballot without a “declaration” of “party” or “independent.” Statutes passed by the legislature disallow that. Do those statutes have constitutional sanction?

Article IV, Section 4, of the Montana Constitution is titled Eligibility for Public Office and says “Any qualified elector is eligible to any public office except as otherwise provided in this constitution.” “…except as otherwise provided in this constitution” is constitutional language used in contrast to “provided by law” and specifically disallows legislation on the matter addressed.

I am a “qualified elector” and I meet the “otherwise provided” qualifications for the Legislature expressed in Article V, Sec. 4, requiring I “be a resident of the state for at least one year next preceding the general election…“ and “For six months next preceding the general election,…” I “…shall be a resident of the county if it contains one or more districts or of the district if it contains all or parts of more than one county.”

Moreover, in Article III, Section 3, the Montana Constitution says “No other oath, declaration, or test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust” apart from the constitutional oath.

What then, is the basis for statutes requiring that candidates “declare” the designation of a “qualified party” or “independent” to be eligible to have their name printed on the general election ballot? The assumed authority is the second sentence in Article IV, Section 4: “The legislature may provide additional qualifications but no person convicted of a felony shall be eligible to hold office until his final discharge from state supervision.”

To interpret this sentence in such a fashion as the legislature evidently has creates an inexplicable contradiction with the first sentence of the section. Proper exegesis of the text requires avoidance of contradictions. It is illogical to express “except as otherwise provided in this constitution” in one sentence and then contradict that statement in the next with “the legislature may provide additional qualifications” to be “eligible to any public office.” To maintain consistency to the text, the reference has to be to the term “qualified elector,” which “requirements” are indeed authorized to be “provided by law” in Article IV, Section 2, and evidently reiterated in the second sentence of Article IV, Section 4.

In short, a logical reading of the Montana Constitution indicates that the Legislature can determine who is a “qualified elector” “by law” but it cannot prevent “any qualified elector” from being “eligible to any public office.”

The Legislature does not require “qualified electors” (voters) to “declare” party affiliation or “independent.” How then can it require such from those who would become candidates without violating Article IV, Section 4? Indeed, how is it that private political parties can be “qualified” for the ballot when the Constitution establishes qualifications for individuals only? And how is it that these private “qualified parties” have publicly funded elections for the purpose of nominating which of their candidates will represent them in the general election?

Do we have “free and open elections” as required by Article II, Section 13, of the Montana Constitution when our “choice” of candidates is largely determined by private “qualified” political parties?

Jore is a former legislator from Ronan. He served four terms in the Montana House.

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