Montana is a big place, with 147 thousand square miles of open country and 554 miles end-to-end on the fastest route through the state. Helena is a long way away for many Montana voters, and with a shortage of press outlets to cover state politics (and even fewer to cover them fairly), Montana voters often have little idea what happens during the legislative session. Relying upon their elected legislators to come home and tell them how the session went, many Montanans are at the mercy of officeholders to be honest about their voting record.
Unfortunately, sometimes legislators prey upon the low-information of their constituents and are less-than-honest about what really happened in Helena and why. Ed Butcher and Lonny Bergstrom hope to change that with their impartial and automated legislator loyalty organization, Legistats.
Former Senator Butcher (Winifred) and Bergstrom (Livingston) are making rounds across the state to explain how Legistats works. 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 Butcher’s late son, Trevis, hands out automatic scores based upon the legislator’s voting record.
Dozens gathered in the small Glendive VFW Hall last night to hear about how the scores are tallied and why it matters. Over the sound of music and revelry in the front of the establishment, the Republicans met in the back meeting room to hear about the political scoring system that fascinated, rather than bored, the attendees.
Butcher described a common scenario of how legislators try to fool their constituents. Butcher said, “You have these legislators come back to the districts and somebody says, ‘I don’t like that bill.’ And the legislator says, ‘I voted against it!’ And then another guy raises his hand at another event and says about that same bill, ‘I’m for that bill’ and the legislator says, ‘I voted for it!’ even though it’s the same bill.”
He continued, “That’s because there are three readings on a bill. The legislator likely voted for the bill on one reading and against it on another. Now he can tell the voters back home he either supported it or voted against it based on what they want to hear. But most voters don’t know that’s how the system is designed to work.”
The chief reason Legistats exists, explained Butcher, is to inform voters on whether or not their legislators are giving them the facts on their voting record.
“For example,” Butcher said, “somebody might claim they voted 90% with the Speaker of the House. But that’s mostly on bi-partisan votes on procedural stuff in which even the Democrats vote for it. These bills are sometimes 100-0 or 50-0. But what they don’t tell you is that they only voted with their party 50% of the time on the partisan bills that really matter.”
“There is a real problem in this state with Democrats running as Republicans. The best example of this is Joel Krautter,” Butcher said. The crowd snickered at the mention of Krautter’s name, who is the House Representative for neighboring Richland County.
Senator Steve Hinebaugh and Rep. Alan Doane, who both were in attendance, faired far better on the Legistats scorecard than members of the “Solutions Caucus,” a group of 20 or so Republicans led by Rep. Llew Jones (R-HD18) who regularly side with Democrats on legislation.
Glendive, a rural agricultural and railroad town in Dawson County, lies 418 miles from Helena. The VFW meeting hall was full of farmers, ranchers, and blue-collar working people who do not have a regular opportunity or reason to go to the state capitol. But thanks to Legistats, they have a simple means to determine whether or not their legislators are following through on their promises to represent Dawson County values.