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A voter drops their ballot off

A voter drops their ballot off at the Lewis and Clark County elections office in this IR file photo.

Lewis and Clark County will conduct nonpartisan elections for all of its county offices moving forward.

As more than 18,500 votes were counted Tuesday night, approximately 55% of voters passed a measure making the offices of sheriff/coroner, county commissioner, clerk and recorder, county treasurer, county superintendent of public schools, county attorney and clerk of court nonpartisan in future elections. 

Many who hold these elected positions have said that their job is not political in nature and their party affiliation has no bearing on their decisions.

"I am absolutely delighted," said County Commissioner Susan Good Geise. "I think Lewis and Clark County voters have really voiced their support for open process elections."

Geise, a Republican, has long fought for nonpartisan elections in Montana for local races. She explained that for the past five years she has worked to make this moment happen. Geise voiced strong support for the bill that allows commissioners to call for these elections in the 2017 legislative session. The bill was tabled in that session, but Geise was there again in 2019 when the bill eventually passed. 

"I'm glad to have played a small part in it. To say I'm jubilant wouldn't be an understatement," Geise said. "The voters have done themselves a great service."

One major argument in holding nonpartisan elections is being able to fill vacated elected positions more quickly. In the past, Lewis and Clark County has had instances in which a county commission seat went without representation. In one instance cited by Geise, former Commissioner Derek Brown vacated his position and nominating a replacement fell to the Republican Central Committee, which took several months. The seat Brown held was the seat Geise currently holds and was later elected to in 2014.

"Dozens of decisions were made during that time period, without the perspective of those residents," said Geise, in July. "Commissioners (Mike) Murray and (Andy) Hunthausen did their level best to take into account the interests of the entire county, but one-third of the county was voiceless."

However, there are several arguments against nonpartisan elections. Political scientists often argue that nonpartisanship in local elections ultimately depresses voter turnout. Additionally, it has been known to cause voters to rely more on incumbency than party when voting. 

There is also an argument that voters have less overall information when voting. However, many view it as the voters' job to educate themselves about candidates prior to voting. 

The Lewis and Clark County Commission advanced the question to the ballot back in July with unanimous support from all three commissioners.

Additionally, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton, Treasurer Paulette DeHart and County Superintendent of Schools Katrina Chaney also voiced their support for nonpartisan elections. Each stated that their party affiliation has no impact on how they do their jobs. 

"We absolutely don't care. When someone calls 911 we don't answer '911 what's your party affiliation?'" Dutton said, at the time. 

In July, Geise said the county's elected positions are "county jobs" and noted that "there is nothing partisan about them." Commissioner Andy Hunthausen expressed agreement with this statement saying he doesn't believe making the jobs partisan is in the best interest of the community. 

All election results are considered unofficial until canvassed. 

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