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Partisan elections explained

The winner of the election for Lake County Sheriff will be determined by the June 5 primary this year. There are two candidates for the position: David Coffman and incumbent Don Bell. Both have filed as Republicans. Therefore, the candidate who gets the most votes on the Republican primary ballot will be the next Lake County Sheriff.

This situation is not uncommon in counties like Lake County where local elections are partisan. In the state of Montana, counties determine whether local elections will be partisan or nonpartisan. Local officials elected by partisan elections include the county sheriff, county commissioners, and county attorney. Candidates for offices state their party affiliation when they file for election. Candidates are listed on their chosen party’s primary ballot. Voters must choose one party’s primary ballot to vote on. The winner of the primary in each party advances to the general election. If all candidates are in the same party, the winner of that party’s primary wins the election.

According to Lake County Commissioner Dave Stipe, this system ensures that a candidate from each qualifying party is featured in the general election. 

Stipe said that the fact that the republican primary ballot will decide the county sheriff election was “unfortunate.” He added that he thinks party ideology does not usually influence the decisions of local officials.

“Partisanship isn’t a big factor in being sheriff or county attorney because you don’t function legislatively,” he said.

Neighboring Sanders County switched to nonpartisan county elections in 2011. Sanders County Commissioner Carol Brooker said that the change was an attempt to reduce “negativity and strife” that plagued politically charged elections in the county. She said that some voters thought that candidates were being elected based on their party affiliation rather than their qualifications.

The county gathered input from the community on the change. 

“The majority of people that testified at the public hearings or sent letters supported the idea,” she said. The ballot issue passed in 2010.

In a nonpartisan election, the two candidates with the highest number of votes advance to the general election. Regardless of party affiliation, each voter uses the same primary ballot. The primary ballot lists all of the candidates who have filed for election and candidates are not associated with political parties.

If elections in Lake County were nonpartisan, both candidates for county sheriff, being the only two, would advance to the general election.

Brooker said that the majority of the feedback from both voters and candidates about the nonpartisan system has been positive. She said that there has been less negativity around elections since the change.

However, it can be harder for candidates to get support for their campaign when they are not associated with an established party. In partisan elections, the party often campaigns for a candidate once they win the primary. When candidates are not associated with a party, they don’t always get the support of an established group. Brooker said that as a result candidates in nonpartisan elections bear more of the burden of campaigning and fundraising. 

Brooker echoed Stipe in saying that partisanship does not make a big difference in the actions of county officials. She said that this is a good reason for holding nonpartisan local elections.

“I can’t think of a decision that I made in my 24 years as commissioner that had anything to do with any political platform,” she said. “I make my decisions on the merit of the issue and not on my political beliefs.” 

Stipe served as commissioner from 1993 to 2005 and has been back in office since 2017. He said that throughout his time as commissioner he has not heard that people want a nonpartisan election system in Lake County.

“I’ve never seen a serious group of people come forward with a significant amount of signatures wanting it changed,” he said.

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