David Parker

David Parker

When voters go to the polls Nov. 5, local Democratic groups are asking they choose to keep county elections partisan.

To educate voters on the issue, the Gallatin County Democrats and the College Democrats at Montana State University are hosting a talk by David Parker, the head of MSU’s political science department, entitled, “The Case Against Nonpartisan County Elections in Gallatin County.” The talk will be at 6 p.m. Wednesday in MSU’s Procrastinator Theater.

Parker has written extensively about and often provides media commentary on local, state and national politics. He spoke at a Gallatin County Commission meeting this summer during which the commissioners decided to place a question on the ballot asking voters if they would like to switch county elections from partisan to nonpartisan.

Parker has said nonpartisan elections favor incumbency and depress voter turnout. In his talk, he will present local and state data on partisan and nonpartisan elections.

The Gallatin County Democrats has come out against nonpartisan elections. This summer, Chair Elizabeth Marum told commissioners that party affiliations give busy voters information they need to select candidates, and without them, voters will make choices based on traits like incumbency, race and gender.

Alyson Roberts, the county Democrats’ state committee representative, said Wednesday’s talk is an opportunity to educate voters about an important ballot question.

“At the surface, this looks like a great idea in a hyper-partisan world, but when you remove the letter next to candidates’ names on the ballot, voters don’t have the indicators they need,” she said.

Cameron Kroetz, a member of the MSU Democrats and president of the College Democrats of Montana, said the MSU Democrats decided to partner with the Gallatin County Democrats to host the event because both groups think nonpartisan elections would negatively affect the county.

“This isn’t healthy for our democracy,” he said. “Democracy needs competition.”

If voters approve nonpartisan elections, the county’s 10 partisan offices — the three county commissioners, county attorney, clerk of district court, sheriff, treasurer, auditor, superintendent of schools and clerk and recorder — would each have a single primary. The two candidates who receive the most votes in each race would advance to the general election.

Candidates could still discuss party affiliations during the campaign and could receive donations from parties, but the ballot would not list parties.

Unlike county elections, the city of Bozeman’s elections are nonpartisan.

Ballots for the city and county elections will be mailed to voters on Oct. 16.

The Gallatin County Commissioners decided to include a question about nonpartisan elections on the November ballot after Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, signed a law this spring that simplified the process for changing the format of county elections.

Commissioner Don Seifert, a Republican, lobbied for the law before the Legislature in March, saying political affiliations are irrelevant to the work of the county’s elected officials, such as distributing license plates and maintaining roads.

The commissioners have said they often hear voters ask them why county elections are partisan, so they would like to give voters the option to change the election format. They have also said that placing the question on the ballot is not an endorsement of nonpartisan elections but simply an opportunity for voters to decide the issue.

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

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