Legistats, founded by former state Representative, Trevis Butcher (now deceased) and continued by former state Senator Ed Butcher of Winifred in his memory, believes in the importance of transparency in government and dispensing information people need to make informed decisions about how to vote. The organization has become increasingly important to Montana politics as moderate Republicans have demonstrated a self-defeating tendency to caucus with Democrats on controversial pieces of legislation. Butcher and his associate, Lonny Bergstrom of Lewistown, have been making rounds throughout the state, presenting their automated party loyalty findings to voters.
Found online, the resource gives scores for party loyalty based upon votes cast by legislators on partisan bills. Bills that have widespread bipartisan support, like procedural votes or non-controversial legislation with little disagreement between the parties, are not factored into the scoring. An ingenious computer algorithm, created by Trevis, hands out automatic scores based upon the legislator’s voting record.
In the Legistats system, the number of times a legislator crosses the majority position of the party line decreases their party loyalty score. This circumvents moderate legislators being able to disingenuously brag about their voting record with party leadership when the bulk of those bills received a majority approval in the Montana House or Senate anyway. However, Legistats takes into account votes that matter the most – when Democrats and Republicans are fiercely divided and a straying party member can tip the balance of power to the minority party.
Legistats has seen increased use in the rise of Llew Jones (R-Conrad), a moderate Republican who regularly uses his influence to tip the legislature to the Democratic left. Jones’ so-called “Solutions Caucus” has more times than not proved to provide solutions for Democrats looking to flex their muscle in the face of a Republican majority.
Jones and his contingent of left-leaning state Republicans have drawn the ire in recent years from conservatives who are understandably upset that it’s errant Republicans – and not Democrats – who prevent the Montana legislature from providing a healthy check-and-balance to Democrat governor, Steve Bullock.
Rep. Derek Skees (R-Kalispell), for example, has insisted that if a lawmaker is voted into office as Republican they should vote with party leadership. Skees claimed to the press that anything else “makes a component of our service a lie to our constituents.”
Skees added, “I would suggest that’s the way that a caucus should behave.”
Legistats has handed out F-ratings this year to legislators like Llew Jones, Mike Hopkins, Rodney Garcia, Joel Krautter, Bruce Grubbs, Tom Welch, Walt Sales, Nancy Ballance, in the House and Steve Fitzpatrick, Jeff Wellborn, Daniel Salomon, Brian Hoven, and Tom Richmond in the Senate.
While these candidates may feel they’re being picked on by Legistats, it’s their voting record that determined their score and not a human on the other side of the computer.
Candi Hamilton, an advocate for the Constitution and state sovereignty from Corvallis, said on Facebook, “There are many tools to use in evaluating candidates for the State Legislature. Legistats is one of them, and it is a good and useful one. At a MINIMUM, it points out those to take a closer look at.”
She continued, “Whatever objections they come up with, the fact remains that it is very effective in sorting them out, because the group it shows separated out happens to correlate very, very closely with the group who self-identifies as the ‘Solutions Caucus.'”