Legistats: Scorecard of Montana’s Extreme Right

Following every Montana legislative session, various interest groups produce “scorecards” designed to show how well a legislator’s voting record conforms with each group’s goals. Every scorecard serves two purposes: to inform the public and to influence legislators.  A prudent citizen will carefully evaluate the structure and content of a scorecard to be sure it measures what it claims to measure, and to discover inevitable embedded biases.  Those scorecards focused on a single issue or policy area, say farm policy or gun control, generally are of the most value. Those that claim to measure abstract characteristics, such as a legislator’s political philosophy, are harder to interpret and should be viewed with caution.

Legistats, Inc. purports to have found a simple way to reveal how good of a Republican any legislator is. But it does nothing of the sort.  Rather, Legistats generates a misleading “objective statistical evaluation of a [Republican] legislators party loyalty,” which (1) is designed to guarantee that some portion of the Republican caucus will always be identified as “anti-Republican,” (2) is biased by cherry-picked data, (3) is not an exclusive, or even the best measure of party loyalty, and (4) despite its evident flaws is being employed as a cudgel to remove Republican legislators who  fail to tow the line drawn by the self-appointed leaders of the party’s extreme right fringe. 

Conjuring RINOs. Legistats selects a limited number of the votes cast by a legislator to manufacture a “loyalty index.” It then grades legislators on a skewed curve to assign grades ranging from A to F.  Now let’s engage in a thought experiment to see how this works: If 50% of legislators have identical voting records and the other 50% have the same record except for one vote, then 50% will receive an A from Legistats while the other 50% will receive an F and thus be branded RINOs (Republicans In Name Only.) Does this make sense? Of course not. But by its very design Legistats must find RINOs even where none exist.

Is this flaw from Legistats’ design a matter of ignorance, or are those hawking Legistats intent on purging the Montana Republican Party by any means necessary? Read on and draw your own conclusions.

Missing Votes. Legistats claims that it only scores “partisan” votes, defined as “over 50% (the Majority) of the votes ‘FOR’ are from one party, and over 50% of the votes ‘AGAINST’ are from the other party. For the 2019 legislative session, this comes to 1,022 votes of the of the over 1,850 votes taken on the House floor. Yet when assigning grades, Legistats used only 620 votes. Why? Perhaps it’s because including the missing 400 votes doesn’t bolster the story Legistats would have you believe. Forr example, when the missing votes are counted, the fraction of time Rep. Theresa Manzella and Rep. Derek Skees (standard bearers for the extreme right) voted with their Republican colleagues falls from 91% to 82% (Manzella) and 94% to 82% (Skees).  The numbers Nancy Ballance and Llew Jones (prominent members of the Republican’s Conservative Solutions Caucus) increase from 63% to 75% and 66% to 77% respectively. When these “lost” votes are included, voting differences between legislators fade, thus complicating the ‘Legistats’ quest to identify RINOs.

Did Legistats lose 400 votes due to a flaw in its scoring algorithm, or has its purveyor cooked the books to exaggerate the severity of legitimate policy differences within the GOP caucus? You be the judge. 

(Mis)Measuring Loyalty. When considering loyalty, one should start with the question: Loyalty to what? Is it to one’s constituents, to ones conscience, to one’s party, to one’s political party… to what? In politics, a statesman finds a principled way to reconcile competing loyalties while history shows that extremists demand slavish loyalty to an object of their choosing. For the ideologues of Legistats, that object is “party loyalty.” The problem for Legistats is that an arguably better measure of loyalty exists – one that tells an entirely different story.  The most important votes taken on the House floor are those on “Second reading,” since these votes almost always determine the fate of a bill.  There were 1,018 such votes during the 2019 session. When these votes are used to calculate a loyalty index – using the same mathematical method as is employed by Legistats – one finds an almost complete reversal of the grades assigned legislators.  Many legislators with high Legistats grades are the least likely to vote with their fellow Republicans. Of the 20 legislators who received an A from Legistats, only one earns an A for second reading votes, while 12 see their grades fall to either a D or an F. And of the 20 legislators receiving an F from Legistats, none fail the second reading test, while nine see their grades fall to either a D or an F. And of the 20 legislators receiving an F from Legistats, none fail the second reading test, while nine see their grades rise to either an A or a B.  (For example, the grades for Representatives Skees and Manzella fall from A to D, while those for Representatives Jones and Balance increase from F to B.)

The foregoing analysis is not meant to be an argument for replacing Legistats with a different measure of loyalty. Rather it is to suggest that “party loyalty” can easily be weaponized against anyone.  Responsible politicians don’t obsess over “loyalty”as a means to purify their party but instead work on building coalitions that can get things done – and win elections. 

Purging the Party. Legistats portrays Republican legislators who don’t conform to its authors dubious definition of “loyalty” as anti-Republican RINOs. Some of its more ardent supporters go further, claiming that Legistats tracks every vote and reconciles it with constitutional and conservative principals.  They go on to assert that a low Legistats grade brands one as being a socalist.  By now it should be apparent that these characterizations are nonsense. And the operators of Legistats, in a display of unexpected (and probably unintended) candor, admit as much.  A disclaimer on their website warms that the Legistats loyalty index “does not reflect legislators [sic] voting records based on specific issues in relationship to party platforms or their own social, constitutional, or fiscal ideology.” Let that sink in. This “objective statistical evaluation” of voting records, besides providing at best an ambiguous measure of party loyalty, reveals nothing about a legislator’s political principles.” So why do Legistats’ proponents continue to tout this useless tool?

To find an answer to this question, one needs look no further than the man behind Legistats. A former legislator from Winifred, Ed Butcher, runs Legistats, Inc.  His time in the legislature was punctuated by outrageously vulgar public outbursts that led to him being compelled by Republican leadership to publicaly apologize on at least two occasions.  Ed hasn’t changed much since leaving office. He holds to extremist beliefs that might charitably be considered eccentric.  His obvious goal is to purge the Republican party elements he personally deems impure.  Ronald Regan would have been aghast. Unlike Butcher, Reagan understood American political history. He warned against the GOP becoming a “narrow sectarian party in which all must swear allegiance to prescribed commandments.” He went on to observe that “such a party can be highly disciplined, but it does not win elections…soon disappear[ing] n a blaze of glorious defeat… never put[ting] into practice its basic tenants, no matter how memorable they may be.”

Ed Butcher and his right-wing extremist comrades (and for that matter left-wing extremists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of the “Squad”) fail to understand that in America successful political parties are by necessity coalitions. Conservatives, libertarians, and yes, even some members of the far right comprise Montana’s Republican Party. The key to the party’s success is to follow on those issues that unite this coalition, e.g., respecting the rule of law, protecting the unborn, strengthening the family, increasing border security, and preserving constitutional rights, while at the same time seeking compromise on those matters on which members of the team disagree. 

Ed Butcher will certainly take issue with this analysis. We can almost hear him shouting, “What about the RINOs who have infiltrated the party”? To answer his question, consider the below figure, which is based upon public information compiled by the non-partisan Montana Free Press and depicts how often a legislator voted with at least half of the members of one party or another. Three features stand out in the data. First. Democrats are tightly clustered together, which could be a survival mechanism for a beleaguered minority party or could be evidence of enforced ideological conformity in the aftermath of a “successful” ideological purge. Second, Republicans are more dispersed, which is consistent with the existence of a (so far) successful multifaceted coalition.  Finally, notice that there is no overlap between the two parties. If there were, then Butcher might have a point when he rails against RINOs. As is evident, the problem for Ed is that RINOs are figments of his imagination.  But every extremist must have an enemy to target. If one cannot be found, one must be invented.  Legistats is a tool for inventing enemies, The problem for the Montana Republican Party is that the targets of Butcher’s jihad comprise a substantial portion of its conservative wing. 

In a perfect world, Ed Butcher and his extremist acolytes might come to their senses before furthering damaging statesmanship in Montana. But we don’t live in a perfect world. The best that can be hoped for is that reasonable Montanan’s will reject Legistats and those behind it in order to do the hard work necessary to best serve the people of Montana.

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