Montana poll: Don’t change the constitution, support abortion, fund public schools better
A new poll from Middle Fork Strategies shows that Montana voters aren’t too excited about the prospects of amending the state constitution, support most reproductive rights, including abortion, and believe in keeping the judiciary nonpartisan.
Those results come at the beginning of the second half of the 2023 legislative session, which will decide funding for public schools, along with the rest of the state budget, and also see a flurry of bills aimed at changing the state’s constitution.
The Montana Legislature has already nixed several attempts at creating partisan races for judges, city council seats and school board elections.
The poll was conducted by Searchlight Research on behalf of Middle Fork, and polling took place between Feb. 7-16, using a base sample of 600 voters. It has a margin of error at +/- 4%. Twenty-five percent of the respondents self-identified as Democrats, while 37% said they were independent and 37% identified as Republicans.
The poll found no significant differences among those political groups when it comes to amending the state constitution, a topic of much debate, especially since the Republicans claimed a supermajority in the legislature after the 2022 election.
Lee Banville, director of the University of Montana’s School of Journalism and political scientist, said that he’s not necessarily surprised by the poll results, which still reflect a libertarian mindset across the political spectrum.
“That’s basically ‘leave me alone’ and leave my rights alone,” Banville said. “I like the right to abortion. I like my guns and want the government out of my business.”
He said that mindset was on full display as Montana lawmakers repeatedly tried to restrict marijuana in the state only to have it constantly overturned by voters.
“It also reaffirms that Montanans aren’t quick to jump on a bandwagon,” Banville said.
Only 15% of Montanans would support amending the constitution, while 64% of Democrats, 66% of independents and 61% of Republicans opposed it. The proposals to change the constitution range from how Supreme Court and district court judges are appointed to specifically writing abortion out of state law as a right protected by the privacy clause.
Six-in-10 voters said that abortion should remain legal in the state in all or many circumstances.
“If the system is not profoundly broken, which it is not, then they don’t generally support coming in with wholesale changes,” Banville said.
He said this poll likely indicates that voters are uneasy with the speed and breadth of the changes, and aren’t convinced of the need to change as quickly as lawmakers.
“(Lawmakers) see this as the a time to seize the moment to make Montana the way they think it should be, but voters seem to like change over time and slower,” Banville said.
The poll also surveyed economic issues, with 57% saying the state’s budget surplus should be used to create more affordable housing, targeted tax relief for renters and property owners, and investments in public education, child care and mental health. Thirty-six percent said that it should be used to provide tax cuts or pay down debt.
Montana residents also noted concern about funding for public schools, with 61% saying that public education is not adequately funded. Seven-in-10 voters also said they disagree that their tax dollars should go toward private and religious schools, with 60% of Republican voters also saying the dollars should remain in the public school system.
Also, residents want to see lawmakers continue to tackle the problem of nursing homes and long-term senior living. In Montana during the past year, 11 long-term health centers have closed, causing alarm in the medical field about the options available for seniors and their families. Long-term care groups and organizations say that state’s current Medicaid reimbursement levels can leave a funding gap of as much as $250 per day, per resident. Residents said some of the surplus should be used to help those options in the state.
And a majority of residents thought the budget surplus should be used to increase the supply of affordable housing, with 53% indicating that money should be used to provide loans to developers and nonprofit organizations to build homes – a finding the researchers note is “consistent among a majority of voters in all regions.”
Polling also shows broad support for Medicaid’s expansion in Montana, with 88% supporting it and agreeing it should be protected.
“Overall, my sense is that Montanans believe our constitution is good right now, and we want to be careful before we mess with it,” Banville said.
Finally, the poll asked about the hit television series, “Yellowstone,” which has been brought up several times in the legislature. The survey notes the series has been both praised and scorned as it has been credited for boosting the tourism industry as well as exacerbating the housing crisis.
Ninety-two percent of Montanans have heard of the series, but only a third of that number said they watch the show. Of those who have watched it or know, 56% say it doesn’t reflect Montana accurately.