(HELENA) The Lewis and Clark County Commission is moving forward with a plan to ask voters whether county officials should be chosen through nonpartisan elections.
At their meeting Tuesday morning, Commissioners Jim McCormick and Susan Good Geise gave initial approval to put that question on the ballot on Nov. 5 – the same date as Helena and East Helena’s city elections.
McCormick said this is an important issue that voters should have a chance to decide.
“It’s, in my words, monumental,” he said.
Commissioner Andy Hunthausen was not at Tuesday’s meeting, but he previously told MTN he supported considering nonpartisan county elections.
A majority of voters would have to approve a change from partisan elections to nonpartisan. It would affect eight county offices where candidates are currently elected with party labels.
In a nonpartisan election, all candidates for an 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.
Earlier this year, Montana lawmakers passed House Bill 129, sponsored by Republican Rep. Ross Fitzgerald of Fairfield. The bill allowed for county commissions to put a proposal to switch from partisan elections to nonpartisan elections – or vice versa – in front of county voters. Gov. Steve Bullock signed it into law last month.
Commissioner Susan Good Geise has advocated nonpartisan county elections for years, arguing the issues county officials deal with do not break down easily along partisan lines. She also said voters should have a chance to consider every potential candidate in a primary.
“County officials, in doing their best by the citizens, do not act in a partisan fashion,” she said. “Forcing them to identify as partisan in order to get on the ballot, particularly during a primary election, serves to limit voter choice.”
Geise called for moving forward with the nonpartisan election proposal as soon as possible, because delaying it could significantly extend the effects of the current system. If a county commissioner elected under a partisan system leaves office before the end of their six-year term, that commissioner’s political party will propose the candidates to replace them, even if the county has since switched to nonpartisan elections.
In a county with nonpartisan elections, the remaining commissioners take applications for candidates to fill the vacancy, then select one themselves.
The county commission will take public comment on the proposed ballot question at their meeting on July 2. They will then take a final vote on moving it forward.
Roger Baltz, the county’s chief administrative officer, said running this proposed election in November would cost the county around $45,000.
Before HB 129 became law, counties could consider changing their election system if voters approved a local government study commission. They are given the opportunity to call for that type of review every 10 years. Lewis and Clark County voters rejected a study commission in 2014.
Geise said she expected a study commission in Lewis and Clark County would cost well over $100,000.
Changing to nonpartisan elections would affect eight Lewis and Clark County officials. Commissioners McCormick and Geise are Republicans, as is county superintendent of schools Katrina Chaney. Commissioner Hunthausen, sheriff-coroner Leo Dutton, county attorney Leo Gallagher, treasurer-clerk and recorder Paulette DeHart and district court clerk Angie Sparks are all Democrats. The county justice of the peace is already elected on a nonpartisan basis.