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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Lewis & Clark County Voters Approve Nonpartisan Elections

Voters in Clinton, Montana, cast ballots during the 2016 elections.
Rebekah Welch
UM School of Journalism
Voters in Clinton, Montana, cast ballots during the 2016 elections.

Starting in 2020, Lewis and Clark County will no longer have partisan elections for leadership offices, an idea that voters from a different southwest Montana county are opposed to.

About 56% of Lewis and Clark voters in agreed to remove partisan labels for county commissioners, the county clerk and recorder, the superintendent of schools and the clerk of district court. The vote comes originates from a 2019 legislative session law allowing counties to pose the partisan election question to voters.

Gallatin County voters answered the same question this week, rejecting it despite backing from local officials. Gallatin County Commissioner Don Seifert told lawmakers earlier this year why he, and his fellow Gallatin County Commissioners, favored the idea.

“I’m elected as a public servant, and I’m elected to help administer the affairs of the county,” he said. “When I’m out campaigning, one of the most [common] questions I’m asked is, ‘Why is this a partisan position?’ And I agree.”

Supporters also say removing the political tag encourages voters to take a deeper look at candidate credentials and experience.

But 54% of voters in Gallatin County still voted down the idea of removing political party labels. David Parker, acting head of the Montana State University political science department, opposed the change.

“Voters, when presented with partisan elections vs nonpartisan elections on the same ballot, tend to vote less in the nonpartisan elections,” he said. “We call it ballot roll off.”

He explained voters often use political party affiliation to help guide their vote in local elections where there may not be a lot of other information about candidates. Without that additional piece of information, Parker said this kind of change could help boost an incumbent’s chance at reelection.

He also said the actions of people elected to nonpartisan offices can often be best made sense of by their political affiliation. According to the Montana Association of Counties, Lewis and Clark County is the 17th county in the state to hold nonpartisan elections.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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