The Gallatin County Commission is moving forward with a plan to ask voters in November if they want to make county elections nonpartisan.

In a meeting Tuesday, the commissioners gave preliminary approval to the ballot question. They will consider it for a second and final time at a July 9 meeting during which they will accept public comment.

“We’re not making a decision. We’re just allowing the voters to decide if this is what they want,” said Commissioner Don Seifert. “I think the voters have and deserve the right to make this decision. I’m hoping that there will be a vigorous debate in the next few months and a lot of discussion about this ordinance and that the voters will vote their will.”

The three county commissioners, county attorney, clerk of district court, sheriff, treasurer, auditor, superintendent of schools and clerk and recorder are elected on a partisan basis. The 10 offices are now held by six Republicans and four Democrats.

If a simple majority of voters request to make county elections nonpartisan, there would be a single primary for the 10 county offices. The two candidates with the most votes in each race would advance to the general election. Candidates would still be allowed to mention party affiliations in their campaigns and to receive donations from parties.

“This has been a question of interest for years,” said Commissioner Joe Skinner. “It really makes no difference to me either way. I can see arguments on both sides, so I’m looking forward to the public debate and seeing what the public want to do with this.”

The commissioners decided to present the question to voters after Gov. Steve Bullock signed a law that clarified their authority to ask voters whether to make county elections nonpartisan. Seifert lobbied for the bill before the state Legislature in March.

The new law is more straightforward than the previous version, which was unclear as to the process for switching from partisan to nonpartisan elections, according to the Montana Association of Counties. It also could help resolve pending legal issues about the process used by some counties in making their elections nonpartisan.

“This was available before, but (the new law) makes it easier for us to get it out to the people,” Commissioner Scott MacFarlane said.

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

Perrin Stein is the county, state and federal government reporter for the Chronicle.

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