Montana became a territory in 1864 and a state in 1889. The original state constitution of 1889 reflected the mining and timber interests that dominated the early days of the state. Partly because of that document’s datedness and partly because of the climate of political reform in the late 1960s, Montanans voted to draft a new constitution. The results of the second Constitutional Convention in 1972 were a reformist, populist set of laws that affirms that the state government exists by consent of the people and for their benefit. The privileges of business and industry were diminished accordingly.
Montana granted women’s suffrage in 1916, four years before the passage of the 19th Amendment. Jeannette Rankin, the first woman representative in the U.S. Congress, was elected from Montana in the same year.
The Montana Legislature is a bicameral, biennial body. There are 56 counties. Since the 1990 census there is only one federal House member (down from two). One particularity of the Montana primary system is its open ballot. Voters are not asked to identify party affiliation to receive a primary ballot; instead, they receive a voting form from both the Democratic and Republican parties. In the voting booth the voter marks only one form, and both are deposited in the ballot box. The system has been both hailed as the truest form of democratic voting and denounced as the most open to political hanky-panky.
Indian reservations make up nine percent of Montana and, even though a substantial amount of this land may be owned by non-Indians, tribal law prevails within reservation boundaries. Indian reservations are recognized by the federal government as independent political units. Legal jurisdiction is therefore something of a puzzle on reservations.
Tribes have certain inherent sovereign rights. Tribes can run their own schools, regulate transport and trade, and have their own constitutions, legislative councils, and tribal court and police systems. The state cannot tax reservation land or transactions that occur on reservations. While such legal considerations may not seem crucial to the traveler, Montana has in effect seven independent political entities within its borders. Visitors need to be aware that certain state laws do not apply on reservations.
Those cheap gas stations advertising cheap cigarettes aren’t found just inside reservations by chance. State fuel and cigarette taxes aren’t levied on those products sold by tribal members within reservations. Some local roads on reservation land are maintained by the tribes. Do not automatically assume that there is public access; sometimes use is reserved for tribal members. For instance, some of the Crow Reservation is off-limits to non-Indians.
Not all areas are open for recreation. The state does not have authority to regulate hunting, fishing, and recreation on reservations. Tribes can issue their own licenses for hunting and fishing, and may levy a user fee for hikers and campers. If you are not a tribe member, always check with tribal authorities before crossing reservation land.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition