Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Dropping party affiliations from ballots catches county's interest

by Canda Harbaugh & Western News
| August 11, 2009 12:00 AM

If Lincoln County commissioners give final approval at an Aug. 19 meeting in Eureka, the county will hold a special election this fall to decide whether or not to continue conducting county elections as partisan or to switch to non-partisan elections.

In a 2-1 vote, county commissioners gave preliminary approval at Wednesday’s meeting. Commissioners John Konzen and Marianne Roose voted for the measure and commissioner Tony Berget voted against it.

“I think it gives people the option that they want,” Konzen said. “I’ve heard it for a long time very strongly – probably the strongest I’ve heard any one issue for a long period of time.”

If it gains final approval, a mail-in county election will be held in conjunction with the municipal election on Nov. 4. If a non-partisan election amendment is adopted, it would take effect in this fall’s election.  

Montana law dictates that primary elections be held as partisan. If the county switches to non-partisan elections, all of the candidates for the county’s nine elected positions would be printed on all ballots – Republican, Democrat or other.

Tammy Lauer, county elections administrator, said during Wednesday’s meeting that last fall’s county election highlighted the problem with partisan elections. The six commissioner candidates all ran as Republican, so Democrat-registered voters were not able to vote for commissioners in the primary election.

“We had six candidates,” Lauer said, “but they were all Republicans so if you voted Democrat, the decision was made without you.”

Berget said that a voter would want to know if a commissioner candidate supported the Constitutional or Libertarian party, but without it on the ballot, the voter may not find out.

“I think in the case of somebody running from Eureka, people in the county in the south end aren’t always going to know those individuals to the extent you do in your own area,” he said. 

Other critics said that if voters don’t know anything about the candidate, it helps to at least have the political affiliation as a guideline.

“It gives a basis of where you start from,” said Alvin Benitz, treasurer for the Republican Club in Lincoln County. “John (Konzen), I know is a Democrat, I know where his basic philosophy starts from. An independent you don’t know where that starts from, so I’m really concerned.”

Former commissioner Rita Windom and her husband Bob Windom reflected the same concerns.

Lauer, who as clerk and recorder will be affected by the measure, said that elected county positions – treasurer, sheriff, clerk of court, superintendent of schools and others – are not political in nature.

“We don’t make any political decisions,” she said, “and we don’t have any political pull.”

Roose agreed.

“Our role has been to serve the people of Lincoln County,” she said. “It’s not our party affiliation that makes the decisions every time we have to make a decision in regards to county government.”

Benitz cautioned commissioners not to go non-partisan because they may lose financial backing.

“A good thing about partisan is that you really get the vote out,” he said. “It will be harder for them (candidates) to get money for their campaigns because they need an organization behind them – a Democratic or Republican.”

Lauer countered Benitz by pointing out that though the ballots will not list a political party, officials are still welcome to have one. She also said that she has researched the topic and many Montana counties have gone in the same direction.

“The voters (in other counties) were very pleased because they feel they have a say in their local government,” Lauer said, “the things that affect them the most, whichever way they choose to vote – Republican or Democratic.”