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Montana Politics

Senate District 34–Not an Aberration, but Evidence of a Broken System

If we need any more evidence about the dysfunction of the American political system, the current partisan debacle in Senate District 34 provides another reminder that the process by which we elect our representatives isn’t serving the interests of the electorate.

Thus far, the race has seen allegations that one candidate, Kirk Bushnell, is really a Democrat running as a Republican, an anti-government Republican running despite an embarrassing family embezzlement scandal, and a New World Order conspiracy theorist who is to the right of Ann Coulter running as a Democrat. The latter, former Republican legislative candidate Comstock, offered the following unusual Democratic bona fides to the press when talking about his new party:

“It’s been taken over by socialists and would-be communists. They need to get their own party,” he said, going on to refer to his new party by a favorite GOP colloquialism. “So I decided that I can make a difference by trying to work within the Democrat party rather than hoping to pull it back to the center as a Republican.”

Senate District 34 is a mess—and it’s only February.

As I have written before, the primary process in Montana and many other states is broken. It encourages the nomination of candidates radically out of step with their districts, partisan games to manipulate the outcomes of primaries, and hyper-negative campaigning –all while discouraging voters from participating.

The answer is to move to primary elections in which the top two candidates, regardless of party affiliation move to the general election. Some districts might see two Democrats facing off, some might see two Republicans, and some might even elect candidates without party affiliation.

And we’d have people who represent the common interest, not the narrowly defined agenda of the most extreme members of each party. Candidates would have to reach out to and listen to their whole districts, not simply win a primary with a D or and R after their names.

I don’t imagine that my proposal would be terribly popular with either political party, but elections aren’t supposed to be about serving their interests. They’re supposed to be about serving our interests and electing citizens capable of working together to provide sensible policy for the people they represent.

If, after the 2011 Legislative session, anyone believes we are getting anything close to rational actors working for the common interest, I have a Confederate gold piece to sell you.

My system would restore political parties to a more natural role: articulating competing visions for the future. We’d still need the Democratic Party and the Republican Party (and maybe a few more), but not to narrow down the choice of the candidates we can vote for in our elections.

I am as partisan as anyone, but I am less interested in the idea of electing Democrats than I am in the idea of electing the best legislators and state officials we can. If Montana is really going to move forward, we must move past the partisan gridlock that turns every issue into an opportunity to score political points and every crisis an excuse to point fingers.

We can do better.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a 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.


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  • A great start, Don, but only a first step IMHO. Why do you think “We’d still need the Democratic Party and the Republican Party”? A better solution would by to make every election non-partisan. Candidates would have to run on their own platform and record without the party BS, obfuscation, distortions and lies.

  • It can't get much narrower. Unless current state and federal laws preventing the formation of new political parties, and non-party individuals, are changed, no amount of tinkering with primary election rules will do the trick. The process is far to costly and/or time consuming. Filing fees for statewide elections are outrageous. Signature requirements for new parties and independents are onerous. Signature deadlines are designed to prevent fair competition. Even write-in campaigns must pay exorbitant fees to have their votes counted. Best, better, or even good, candidates and voters will not participate in the current slime-coated, rigged system. Coke and Pepsi own the process top to bottom, it's up to them to restore that which they have taken from us.

  • I definitely have to disagree about the cost to file for a statewide race. If you can't find supporters willing to chip in the kind of money it takes to file, you're just not going to be competitive. Lowering it (under the status quo) will just encourage spoiler candidates. I'm bnot talking about millions of dollars, but I think filing fees of a few thousand dollars are more than reasonable.

  • Spoiler is a term almost always used by party hacks in a negative way to eliminate competition. It sends an anti-democratic message. You contradict the premise of your proposal.

    I think you're forgetting the median income in Montana is South of $30,000. Do you want candidates who care about people, or only "competitive" ones based on status, or who's got the most friends with money to throw at a campaign? Why eliminate a huge percentage of the pool at the start? The very best people I know in Montana struggle to make ends meet.

    • I don't mean to nitpick a triviality, but if income is central to your argument then the facts should be clear. The Montana Per Capita Personal Income in 2010 was $35,000, somewhat north of 30. The median household income for the state is $42,000. These are not great numbers, nor do I present them as such. But they are better than stated in your argument.

  • I think this is a great idea. Get everyone on one ballot and the top two "vote-getters" battle it out in the general. It's really the only way to create an atmosphere in the legislature that is conducive to compromise and reasonableness.

  • Thank you for the correction on Montana median income. I still maintain that a filing fee of "a few thousand" to an average Montanan is a significant consideration before entering a statewide political campaign. For some percentage I believe it is a deterrent. I completely understand, however, if you think the system is not broken. A top-two system that does not descriminate against candidates willing to serve is a good idea. Instant runnoff is too.

    • I like instant run-off, but really admire the simplicity of a top-two system. It has the benefit of being both democratic and easily understood.

      As to the filing fees, I presume most candidates don't have to pay out of pocket. A candidate who will have a chance to win a statewide race must have a few hundred people willing to chip in $5, right? If not, how could they possibly win?

  • Sure, only one candidate wins in the end, and to win it takes some money. But why cull new candidates before they decide whether or not to run? They're new! Inexperienced! Of course, a new candidate will gain momentum and contributions along the campaign trail. But March 12 is the filing deadline for candidates. That's also when signatures are due for new parties and non-party independents. If somebody new is motivated to run in April, it's already too late. But the primary election isn't until June. The current odds of anybody unseating an incumbent is roughly 3%. Now, Kailey will probably correct me on this, but it's in the ballpark last time I looked it up. Should we all just concede based on those averages? Hell no. Well, I think it's even more presumptuous to eliminate any candidate for not having enough money to file, or enough signatures to run as an independent independent by March 12. What in the world is the harm in opening up elections to anybody interested in serving their state or country?

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