Gallatin County Courthouse File

The Gallatin County Courthouse is shown in this August 14, 2018, file photo.

The Gallatin County Commission plans to ask voters in November to make county elections nonpartisan.

“In local politics, we really should run on our skill set rather than on having an R or D or an I attached to our names,” said commissioner Don Seifert.

The commissioners can now ask voters to eliminate partisan county elections thanks to the passage of House Bill 129, which Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock signed into law last week.

“I think it will force candidates to run harder because they’ll have to reach out to both Republicans and Democrats and work for the support of both parties,” said commissioner Joe Skinner. “And that could improve the quality of the candidates.”

The commissioners have said they support nonpartisan elections because political affiliations are irrelevant to the work county elected officials do, such as maintaining roads and administering elections.

The county has 10 elected offices, including the three commissioners. Seifert and Skinner are Republicans, while fellow commissioner Scott MacFarlane is a Democrat.

The other offices — including the county attorney and sheriff — are held by four Republicans and three Democrats.

Unlike the county, the city of Bozeman has nonpartisan elections.

Seifert and Skinner acknowledged that some of their decisions are political and that they attend party events but emphasized that they don’t take direction from any party or form caucuses like state and national politicians do.

The commissioners anticipate crafting a ballot question by August. If voters accept the change to elections, the 2020 county elections will be nonpartisan. Each county office would have a single primary, and the two candidates who receive the most votes would face off in the general election. Candidates would still be able to reference party affiliations in their campaigns and to solicit parties for donations.

Based on comments he’s heard from voters, Skinner said he foresees the ballot measure passing.

“The question I’ve received most during my three times campaigning has been why we have to be partisan,” he said. “This gives voters a chance to change that.”

The new law provides greater clarity than the previous state statute, which was ambiguous and complicated regarding how counties could switch elections from partisan to nonpartisan, according to the Montana Association of Counties, which supported the bill. It also could help resolve pending legal questions about the way in which some counties altered their elections from partisan to nonpartisan.

The new law doesn’t affect the county’s five nonpartisan offices — district and justice court judges.

Perrin Stein can be reached at 406-582-2648 or at pstein@dailychronicle.com. Follow her on Twitter @PerrinStein.

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