At the end of next week, voters in Lewis and Clark County will be receiving ballots for the Nov. 5 election. Outside of Helena, voters will see a ballot with only one issue to decide: whether to allow non-partisan elections for county government.
The question comes after the 2019 Montana legislature approved House Bill 129, which allows county governments in the state to legally put the question before voters, and it’s something Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Susan Good Geise has been working toward for some time.
“I have moved heaven and earth so that I could get this question legally asked,” she said. “The first time I attempted to have this carried through the legislature, it was defeated, and it was defeated, frankly, to punish me…every vote against it was a Republican vote.”
Geise, a long-standing Republican, is a former chair of the Montana Republican party, served in the legislature in the late 80s, and was a researcher for the Republican Party for many years, but she has been vocal about her concerns with the direction the party has taken recently. In 2016, she even said in a Facebook post she considered herself “excommunicated” from the party.
However, the idea of nonpartisan elections drew support from other counties in the state and Republican Representative Ross Fitzgerald of Fairfield re-introduced the proposal in House Bill 129 during the 2019 legislative session, where it ultimately won the support it needed.
Geise has long promoted the idea of nonpartisan county elections, and hopes Lewis and Clark County voters will support them. In her view, party politics don’t play a role in the job of being an effective county commissioner. In 2014 She told the Helena Independent Record In 2014 that “we have our hands full without being labeled with terms that divide us, especially in this partisan atmosphere on a national scale.”
“There is nothing partisan about this job,” Geise told the BVD this week. “The truth is, if you’re running for this seat because you’ve got an axe to grind, you’re probably not going to be the best candidate.”
Geise’s issues with the current partisan system stem from both her experience serving as a county commissioner and from the process that saw her appointed to the seat in 2013, following the resignation of Republican commissioner Derek Brown.
“The process that I emerged from…in my opinion was a little bit…unseemly,” Geise said.
At the time, the Tea Party was a strong force within the Republican party and there were huge divisions within the central committee. Geise said internal party disputes saw several loyal, long-serving, “rock ribbed” Republicans being sidelined, resigning or removing themselves from consideration, and she admitted she was leery about throwing her name in the hat.
“As a former chairman of the Montana Republican party, I’m accustomed to dukin’ it out with Democrats. I would do that every day of the week if I had a chance, but I didn’t want to be duking it out with my own party.”
Looking ahead, Geise sees the potential for a similar situation to arise among the Democrats, as the far-left wing of the party grows in influence. “I don’t believe, especially for local government, that party bosses should be making those decisions.
Geise believes a nonpartisan system will take the process of filling a vacant seat “out of the back room” and into the public, with the commission taking applications from candidates for the seat with a blind eye toward party.
“The commission, in a series of public meetings would have interviews, bring everyone together,” she said. “I’d expect to see some forums where people could come with questions. By law, when they appointed somebody, they would have to have a public process, where they would have public comment,” she said. “It would all be public. Nothing in a backroom”
She admitted the idea of nonpartisan county elections had never crossed her mind when she put her name forward for the commission seat, but she was shocked that it took the Republican Central committee six months to find potential replacements for Brown.
During that time, she believes voters in District 2 were disenfranchised from the county and that the two remaining commissioners at the time, Andy Hunthausen and Mike Murray, were effectively tied down by the additional responsibilities they had to shoulder
“I can say this from my six-plus years on the commission: when there are only two people on the commission, nobody can get sick, nobody can go to a wedding. Nobody can go on vacation, because you are not able to do the county’s business unless there are two people there (to form a quorum),” she said.
She also believes forcing county candidates to identify as a partisan to get on the ballot limits voter choice during an election year.
Using her own commission seat - which she will vacate in 2020 - as an example, she explained that if only Democrat candidates file for the position, Republicans won’t have the chance to vote for the person they think is best in the primary election, because the Democrat names only appear on primary ballots for Democrats, and vice versa. In the general elections, that effectively leaves Republicans without a candidate to vote for.
Under the nonpartisan model, all candidates would appear on each party’s ballot, with the top two vote getters advancing to the general election.
“If it’s just garden variety, everybody files nonpartisan, it’s just like a (Montana) Supreme Court justice (candidates); they’re on both ballots,” she said.
Geise recognizes some people rely on party affiliation when voting. “Because it is local government, I think it is foolish to vote strictly party,” she said. “If people want to vote that way, that is certainly their right, this is America. I would prefer that they cast a vote, especially if it’s for local government, that’s a little bit more informed.”
Nevertheless, she said there would be nothing to prevent a candidate from declaring their party affiliation during a campaign, to prevent them from taking contributions or help from political parties.
“They can do everything but file as a partisan,” she said.
Geise’s commission seat would be the first county office to be affected by a nonpartisan election, if the voters approve the change, but it would take several years to implement the change fully. Until then, if a county official elected under the partisan system leaves a vacancy, their replacement would be selected under the party committee system until the positon is filled under a nonpartisan election.
There are currently eight officials in Lewis and Clark County who would be affected by the change: the three commissioners, the Sheriff/Coroner, Superintendent of Schools, County Attorney, Clerk of District Court, and Clerk and Recorder.
Among those positions are three republicans and five democrats, but Geise said she hasn’t seen party politics play a role in any of their duties. “When I started talking about this and (Coroner) Mickey Nelson was still alive, I said the Sheriff doesn’t say ‘911, what is your emergency, what is your party’. And by the time Mickey gets to you it’s just too late to ask.”