Montana Politics

A Washingtonian Proposal: Eliminate Party Primaries in Montana

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In the spirit of Washington’s Birthday, I thought I’d write up my thoughts about a better way to elect candidates for office in Montana: a system like that in place in Washington, in which the top two candidates from a primary advance to the general election, rather than the winners of the respective party primaries. If two Republicans are the leading vote winners in the spring, then two Republicans square off in the fall. If it’s two Democrats, then they square off. There wouldn’t be any changes to the election calendar required, just a new way of thinking.

Why should political parties get to have the state pay for elections run for their benefit, rather than for the benefit of voters as a whole? A “top two” system will put elections back to what they are supposed to do, selecting the best candidate for an office.

Better Representation of the Electorate

I’m prepared to concede the Montana is a more conservative state than it often appears to be from my vantage point here in Helena; however, I’m not willing to concede that it’s as conservative as the legislators running the current mockery of a session seem to believe. Why are they so far to the right? Because of a primary and general election system that generates candidates on the extremes, rather than those who represent the views of the districts they “represent.”

The current party primary system empowers people like Roger Koopman, who can blackmail candidates by attacking them for being insufficiently “Republican” or “conservative.” It creates Legislatures during which which nullification schemes, concealed weapons in bars, and militias can receive serious “debate,” and even passage. It rewards extremism rather than pragmatism.

The system is broken if it’s meant to represent what the voters really think—and a “top two” would lead to more candidates being elected who represent the values of their districts.

Better Educated Voters

The current system simply makes it too easy on voters. Wait for the general election and simply vote for the candidate identified as a D or an R if you haven’t taken the initiative to research the candidates or had the opportunity to hear their messages. I think we can all admit to having voted for a candidate simply because of her party affiliation—a top two system would require voters to make more educated choices, perhaps even between two Democrats or two Republicans.

Ravalli County just elected a county treasurer who basically couldn’t count, largely because of party affiliation. The “top two” system would absolutely make candidates have to work harder to inform voters and voters work harder to learn about those they vote for.

Better Odds of Bipartisan Compromise

Having tracked a lot of votes during this session, it seems like many are either nearly unanimous or almost entirely party-line. More legislators operating outside of the ideological extreme seem much more likely to be willing to compromise. I know that there are people in both the House and Senate right now who could work to forge common-sense shared solutions to some of the state’s pressing issues, but the hyper-partisanship created by the current primary system makes such compromise nearly impossible to imagine.

Better Candidates, From Any Party or None At All

Maybe the best feature of a “top two” system is that the best candidate can win an election, with or without party affiliation.  In some parts of the state, that might mean a Tea Party candidate, in others a Green candidate. Better yet, some candidates may be elected without party affiliation. Compare that with the current system, in which merely winning a party primary practically ensures a general election win, no matter the quality of the candidate.

I would love to see the kind of extended campaign that might take place between two Democrats in a Missoula district or two Republicans in a Havre district. The party composition of the Montana Legislature might not change at all, but the quality of those members would have to increase.

Better Primaries

A “top two” system would make primaries matter and increase voter turnout. All too often, voters don’t even have a choice right now during primaries and don’t bother to head to the polls. A system that encouraged Montana voters to get educated and vote twice during the year will be good for candidates and the electorate.

Both conservatives and liberals like to imagine that their views make them the heirs of the Founding Fathers, but perhaps we should look more closely to the ideas of the first President, who built a Cabinet of political and personal rivals, chosen for their talents rather than their political affiliation. Washington famously warned against the development of parties in his farewell address to the nation, arguing that reliance on parties would lead to bad governance:

They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.

If the current session of the Montana Legislature isn’t proof of Washington’s fears, I wonder what else could be. Perhaps it’s time for those who want to be the heirs of Jefferson and Hamilton to consider making our elections about the best candidates once again, rather than a game played by the parties.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

14 Comments

  • I'm really glad you used the example of the Ravalli County treasurer. That is a PERFECT example of what happens with irresponsible citizenship. Voters follow party lines and then end up screwing themselves. A lot of commenters on our website have said she should just stay to teach those ill-informed voters a lesson and I can't help but kind of agree.

  • I am sorry–but, I lived in WA state for nearly 22 years. There has not been a "clean" election in that time. The current governor has even stated that "an election is just an indicator of how people are feeling". How do you think it is that only Democrats have been in the Governor's office for so damn many years? Oh, and don't forget that the Seattle police chief is now on Obama's staff as is the last two term democratic governor (Chinese/American). He was instrumental in facilitating the "releationship" with China. The other thing the WA state brainiacs have in place is an absolute arbitration rule for legal cases. If you are the little white guy forget the legal system–take what they give you and leave town. There is no legal system because of the arbitration rule. The other thing WA state has done so well to help eliminate anyone who disagrees is the all mail in ballot. Boy, that sure made controlling the elections a lot easier.

  • That's an interesting idea, but it'll never happen in Montana.

    (1) It's make every position non-partisan, which will never fly.

    (2) Our system is currently set up to keep the incumbents entrenched. Think about it – you want to get rid of an official – and you are of the same party –

    The filings end March 15th.

    The absentee ballots go out May 5th.

    The last primary was decided by May 12th – ask Tyler Gernant about that –

    It gives you 7 weeks to run a campaign, against an incumbent – which I figure gives the incumbent about a 35 point advantage –

    There's no way they'll give that up.

    But it's an interesting idea.

  • Top Two elections actually have been proven to make it more likely that incumbents keep their seats, and make even more than it already is for independents to have a chance against major party candidates, given he shortened calendar.

    Straight Open Primaries are best, without the artificial limits.

    Solomon Kleinsmith
    Rise of the Center

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  • I'm leery of the idea, as I think it will hide partisan leanings from the voters, making choices more difficult. And I think Tim makes a very good point: a plurality vote has few virtues when there are many candidates. Some kind of instant runoff system is needed to reduce the probability that nutjobs with small following will win the nominations in an election with a glut of candidates.

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