Quick, how many words are in this: “$5,000,000.”
Are there zero words, because it’s just a number? Or are there three, because you would read that aloud as “five million dollars”?
In other words, are numbers words?
This actually was a central question in a Montana Supreme Court opinion yesterday barring a statewide November vote on a proposed switch to a California-style “top-two” primary system in which the two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election regardless of their party affiliation.
The state Supreme Court ruled that the referendum’s “title” was more than 100 words, violating a state law restricting the word-length of such titles in bills referred by the Legislature for a statewide vote.
For the bill in question, the title said the new law would provide that the top two candidates in the primary “advance to the general election irrespective of party affiliation” while “eliminating separate party ballots.”
There are fewer than 100 of these “words,” in this sense a single letter or a combination of letters.
The title then lists dozens of statutory citations, reflecting all of the sections of the Montana code that the new primary-voting system would amend. These references appear in the form of numbers, as in “13-14-117″ and “13-10-311.” Those citations brought the title over the 100-word limit.
The state Attorney General’s office, defending the referendum as legally sufficient, said the title didn’t exceed 100 words if statutory references are excluded.
The state Supreme Court sided with the petitioners who challenged the word-length as excessive.
“Other authorities also support the conclusion that numbers and discrete combinations of numbers, are words,” the panel said in its majority opinion, citing the American Heritage and Merriam-Webster dictionaries.
“The Legislature chose to place the 100-word limitation into the statute and must comply with its own law when referring a matter to the people for a vote,” the court said. The title “is not a mere technical violation of the statute, but is substantially in excess of the 100-word limit imposed by the Legislature.”
The Billings Gazette has more here about the ruling.