HELENA — Voters in Lewis and Clark County could make a big change to county government in next month’s elections. They will decide whether county elected officials should be chosen on a partisan or nonpartisan basis.
Currently, eight county offices are filled through partisan elections: county sheriff-coroner, county attorney, county treasurer-clerk and recorder, county superintendent of schools, and clerk of district court, along with three seats on the Lewis and Clark County Commission. If a majority of voters supports a change, those offices would become nonpartisan starting in the 2020 elections.
In a nonpartisan election, all candidates for a county office would file for a single primary election. If enough candidates took part, a primary would be held and the top two finishers would move on to the general election. If fewer people filed, the primary could be canceled and all of the candidates would appear on the general election ballot.
While party identifications would not appear on the ballot, candidates could still use party names in their advertisements.
Lewis and Clark County’s ballot question comes after this year’s session of the Montana Legislature, when lawmakers passed House Bill 129 and Gov. Steve Bullock signed it into law. The bill allowed county commissions to put a proposal to switch from partisan elections to nonpartisan elections – or vice versa – in front of voters.
Currently, 15 Montana counties choose officials using a nonpartisan system. After HB 129 became law, Lewis and Clark County and Gallatin County commissioners put forward proposals to join them.
Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Susan Good Geise, a Republican, has advocated for nonpartisan county elections for several years. Speaking on her own behalf, not in her official capacity, she said the issues county officials deal with shouldn’t be decided on partisan lines.
“Any barrier that currently exists because of partisanship, it’s an artificial barrier,” she said. “County commissioners’ jobs should be dictated by the content of your character, how hard you work, and how you can build trust among your colleagues.”
She noted that Lewis and Clark County’s commission is not organized by party, and that the three commissioners rotate terms as chair regardless of their party. She said many of the commissioners’ duties are simply about following state law, so there is not always room for them to take partisan stands.
Geise also has concerns about the current procedure for filling a vacancy on the county commission, in which the county party the departing commissioner belonged to nominates the candidates to replace them. The other commissioners then choose from among those nominees.
When Geise was appointed to the commission in 2013, she said the seat had been open for about six months while that process went forward. She has announced she will not run for reelection in 2020, saying part of the reason was that she was not sure she would be able to finish a full six-year term, and she did not want that to happen again.
Under a nonpartisan system, anyone living in a departing commissioner’s district could apply to fill their position, and the other commissioners would select a replacement.
“Bring this out into the light of day in a public process and let anybody who has the willingness to serve be able to do that,” she said.
Nonpartisan election proposals have also drawn opposition – including from Dr. David Parker, a professor and current head of the political science department at Montana State University. Parker said there is evidence that fewer voters take part in nonpartisan elections.
“The political science research is clear: If you want lower-turnout elections, if you want to take away information from voters, then go to nonpartisan elections,” he said.
Parker said he found what he called “ballot roll-off,” with people who cast votes in partisan state and federal races not making choices in nonpartisan judicial races or ballot initiatives at the same election.
Parker said county races tend to be “low-information,” and it can be difficult for voters to find information about candidates or distinguish between their positions. In that situation, he said party identification is a key way voters can pick a candidate.
With party information removed from the ballot, Parker argued other, perhaps unconscious, biases would come into play. He suggested incumbents and campaigns with more money would benefit because of their ability to build name recognition.
Parker said research has shown party identity is still a major factor in elected officials’ actions, even when they are chosen in nonpartisan elections.
“It’s silly to presume that people don’t take their partisanship into consideration when they make decisions and voters need that information to make the best-informed decisions,” he said. “We know partisanship affects decisions, and since we know that empirically from study after study after study, why would you be dishonest by removing that from the ballot?”
In Lewis and Clark County, the county commission currently includes two Republicans – Geise and Commissioner Jim McCormick – and one Democrat – Commissioner Andy Hunthausen. Sheriff-coroner Leo Dutton, county attorney Leo Gallagher, treasurer-clerk and recorder Paulette DeHart and district court clerk Angie Sparks are all Democrats. County superintendent of schools Katrina Chaney is a Republican. The county justice of the peace is already elected on a nonpartisan basis.
Sandi Luckey, the chair of the Lewis and Clark County Democratic Central Committee, released a statement about the nonpartisan election proposal.
“As Lewis and Clark County Democrats, we believe the best decisions are made when voters are educated on their choices,” she said. “Identifying political party affiliation is a way for candidates to communicate their values to voters. However, the work of local government is about its people, not its parties. We look forward to honoring the decision made by our neighbors and friends.”
Lori Hamm, who chairs the Lewis and Clark County Republican Central Committee, said they have not taken a position on the issue.
Lewis and Clark County election officials mailed almost 40,000 ballots Wednesday. Voters in the cities of Helena and East Helena will vote on municipal offices as well as the nonpartisan election issue. About 21,500 voters in unincorporated areas will only have the nonpartisan measure on their ballots.
Audrey McCue, Lewis and Clark County’s elections supervisor, said most voters should receive their ballots in the next few days. If they have not gotten a ballot by the middle of next week, they can contact the elections office at (406) 447-8339.
Ballots must be returned by 8 p.m. on Nov. 5. Effective this year, only a family member, household member, caregiver or acquaintance can directly deliver another voter’s ballot to election offices. Anyone who does drop off another person’s ballot must register. A person can only collect and deliver up to six ballots per election. The new law does not apply to ballots sent in by mail, and you do not need to register to drop off your own ballot.
Lewis and Clark County residents can still register to vote or update their registration through Nov. 5 by visiting the elections office in the City-County Building.