(HELENA) Lewis and Clark County commissioners are planning to ask voters – possibly as soon as this fall – whether county officials should be chosen through nonpartisan elections.
Montana lawmakers passed House Bill 129, sponsored by Republican Rep. Ross Fitzgerald of Fairfield, during this year’s legislative session. Gov. Steve Bullock signed it into law earlier this month.
HB 129 allows county commissions to put a proposal to switch from partisan elections to nonpartisan elections – or vice versa – in front of county voters. A majority of voters must approve the change.
In a nonpartisan county election, all candidates for a county office file for a single primary election. If enough candidates take part, a primary is held and the top two finishers move on to the general election. If fewer candidates file, the primary can be canceled and all of the candidates appear on the general election ballot.
The law will not prevent candidates in a nonpartisan election from including their party identification in campaign materials.
Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Susan Good Geise has advocated for years to make it easier for counties to switch to nonpartisan elections. She argues the issues that affect county residents shouldn’t be decided on party lines.
“There’s nothing partisan about the jobs that we do,” she said. “To put a barrier up to cooperation among the three commissioners is an artificial barrier; it’s something that we really don’t need to have.”
Geise and Commissioner Jim McCormick were elected as Republicans, while Commissioner Andy Hunthausen is a Democrat.
Geise also says she supports changing to nonpartisan county elections because it would change how a vacancy on the commission is filled. If a commissioner elected from a political party resigns or otherwise vacates the office, the party’s county central committee must nominate three candidates to replace them, and the remaining commissioners must choose one. If the commissioners can’t agree on one, the central committee picks another three candidates.
In a county with nonpartisan elections, the remaining commissioners take applications for candidates to fill the vacancy, then select one themselves.
When Geise was appointed to the commission in May 2013, it had been months since her predecessor had resigned.
“The people of District Two, that I represent, were unrepresented for six months,” she said.
Geise said she wants the county to consider putting the question on the ballot this fall, if they are able to hold an election in conjunction with the City of Helena’s November municipal election. She hopes the vote can be held before the 2020 county election cycle begins in January.
“We’re taking all of our options into consideration to see if there were a cost-effective way to run it prior to the primary election, so that when people file in early winter of 2020, they would be filing – if the voters gave permission – on a nonpartisan basis,” Geise said.
Changing to nonpartisan elections would affect eight Lewis and Clark County officials, including the three commissioners. 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.
Geise’s seat on the commission will be up for election in 2020, along with the district court clerk position. Geise has said she does not currently plan to run for another six-year term.
Lewis and Clark County is one of 41 counties across Montana that currently have partisan county elections. Another 15, including neighboring Broadwater and Jefferson Counties, choose county officials on a nonpartisan basis.