Special Montana House of Reps Election

Voters fill out their special election ballots May 25, 2017, at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds in this file photo. 

The November ballot will ask voters whether they want to make county elections nonpartisan.

The Gallatin County Commission unanimously approved the ballot question on Tuesday despite hearing the Gallatin County Democrats chair and a Montana State University political science professor speak out against it.

“I trust the voters to make this decision,” Commissioner Joe Skinner said.

If a simple majority of voters approve nonpartisan elections, there will be a single primary for the 10 county offices — the three county commissioners, county attorney, clerk of district court, sheriff, treasurer, auditor, superintendent of schools and clerk and recorder. The 10 officers are now held by six Republicans and four Democrats.

The commissioners’ decision to place the question on the ballot comes about two months after Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock signed a law that clarified the process for changing county elections from partisan to nonpartisan or vice versa.

In speaking to commissioners, Gallatin County Democrats chair Elizabeth Marum said political affiliations give voters, who are often too busy to research candidates, information that helps them decide whom to vote for.

She also cited research that indicates people are less likely to vote and more likely to choose incumbents or candidates based on their race or gender in nonpartisan elections.

“The role of elected county offices affects us every day, and we as voters deserve to know party affiliations because our values are represented by these political parties,” she said.

David Parker, an MSU political science professor, presented commissioners with research showing that nonpartisan races have lower turnout rates than partisan ones. He compared the 2017 Bozeman municipal elections, which are nonpartisan, with the 2017 special House election where voters chose between Rep. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, and Rob Quist, a Democrat. Of those who were eligible to vote in both elections, 58% voted in the special election, while only 23% voted in the municipal election, he said.

He urged commissioners not to place the question on the ballot because he said voters are likely to say they want nonpartisan elections but then will be less likely to go to the polls.

“If you want to see the negative consequences of a referendum just look over the pond to our colleagues in the United Kingdom and what happened with Brexit,” he said. “A terrible decision with voters who got terrible information (and) who are making a decision, which all the experts demonstrate will lead to dire economic consequences for the citizens who voted for Brexit.”

Commissioner Scott MacFarlane rejected Parker’s argument. He said he finds it unethical for him to decide whether voters are smart enough to choose whether they want nonpartisan elections. He added that having the question on the ballot gives people like Parker the opportunity to educate the public about the benefits of partisan elections.

“I think in our community the last person you should probably listen to about the merits of partisan and nonpartisan election would be a partisanly (sic.) elected public official,” he said.

Commissioner Don Seifert said he isn’t sure whether party affiliation helps voters choose candidates for county offices because county offices don’t do partisan work.

“I would hope that an auditor or a treasurer or a clerk and recorder wouldn’t make decisions based on partisan platform (or) partisan policy,” he said. “I think that would be very detrimental to our operations.”

Skinner said he doesn’t think people should vote merely based on party affiliation and instead should vote in races where they know about the candidates.

“It’s all about filling in as many blanks as we can on the ballot and maybe we’ll fill in fewer blanks,” he said. “But to me (elections) are about having informed voters making informed decisions.”

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

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