Lewis and Clark County officials will decide in the next few months whether to eliminate party identification from their election system.
Currently, Lewis and Clark County's elected positions – from sheriff/coroner to county attorney to superintendent of schools – are filled through partisan elections. All three county commissioners – two Republicans and one Democrat – are in agreement that their jobs do not intersect with partisan politics and believe other county officials agree.
“This is my thirteenth year, and (I) recognized from the very beginning that it’s not a very partisan job, we don’t do partisan things,” said Commissioner Andy Hunthausen, the commission’s lone Democrat. “There are some people that maybe could try to make things partisan if they want to, but it’s generally not a partisan job. We’re from different parties here and we work together really well, almost always vote the same way because the issues before us are about doing the people’s business, providing services to the community, those kinds of things.”
The possibility of nonpartisan county elections came about with the recent ratification of House Bill 129, carried by state Rep. Ross Fitzgerald, R-Fairfield. Fitzgerald’s district stretches far beyond his Teton County hometown to include much of Pondera County and the northern half of Lewis and Clark County, where Commissioner Susan Good Geise resides in Augusta.
Under the new law, county governments can allow voters to decide by a simple majority whether to switch the county election system from partisan to nonpartisan or vice versa. A similar bill Fitzgerald carried in 2017 narrowly passed the House but never made it out of a Senate committee.
Geise, who has long opposed the idea of partisan county elections, said the commission has plenty of incentive to act quickly. One reason is to keep ballot costs low by “piggybacking” on Helena’s municipal elections, which would require a decision by August to put the question on the ballot this fall.
But Geise, who announced in December that she won’t seek reelection to a six-year term in 2020, has another, more personal reason to do away with the partisan elections – to make it easier to replace commissioners who leave in the middle of their term.
It took six months to appoint Geise to the commission after her predecessor, Derek Brown, resigned in November 2012. The long process by which the county Republican Party selected candidates to replace Brown left only Democrats Hunthausen and then-Commissioner Mike Murray on the commission in the meantime.
Ironically, Brown cited partisan “bickering” as a reason for stepping down.
“There was nobody from District 2,” Geise said. “Andy and Mike did a good job, absolutely, no question about that. But that individual, that other perspective was absent, and that’s not right.”
The commission’s District 2 comprises central Helena, much of the northern Helena Valley and a detached section in the far north of Lewis and Clark County.
“It is hard to have three people acting in unison who have completely different skills and aptitudes and experiences," Geise said, "and the last thing we need is some artificial barrier to make it harder."