Community

Making the Two Party System Unaffordable

Nobody filed as a democrat for the Lincoln County positions – and the only competitive race in the primary was between republicans for county commissioner.  Basically, all the county’s administrative positions are determined in the courthouse, then we get to vote for a single slate of candidates.

When I was a lot younger, my elementary and high schools described the difference between the two party system we had in the USA, and the single party system that operated in the USSR.  At twelve, I could see the argument.  At 72, looking at the choices I will have in November, locally I don’t see any debate – the argument is a slightly more polite version of “Shut up, peasant.  Joe Stalin received 100% of the votes.”

So let’s look at those unopposed administrative positions.  There has at least been primary opposition for the county commissioners – but the county administrative positions are similar to the entrenched bureaucracy that in DC is often called “Deep State.”  In Lincoln County, the unopposed County Clerk and Recorder could be considered the primus inter pares of Deep County.  She (these positions are predominantly occupied by women) learned the ropes as a departmental employee in Libby, and was anointed to the position upon her predecessor’s retirement.  County Treasurer is similar, though years ago Nancy Trotter Sutton moved into that office from the superintendent of schools office, where she had served as secretary.  

It seems a safe generality to look at the real – not the legal – requirements of Lincoln County’s elective administrative positions as three-fold: Republican, Libbyan resident, and time served in the courthouse bureaucracy. None of these things make a person evil – but commonality of experiences can lead to a common world view.  The big thing that leads to this shrunken candidate pool is the filing fees that keep the opposition from running a Quixotic campaign.  Spending $300 just to make sure folks have a choice is an expensive gesture.

Filing fees are listed in the Montana Codes:

“Filing Fees

13-10-202. Filing fees. Filing fees are as follows:

(1) for offices having an annual salary of $2,500 or less and candidates for the legislature, $15;
(2) for county offices having an annual salary of more than $2,500, 0.5% of the total annual salary;
(3) for president in a presidential preference primary, an amount equivalent to the filing fee required for a United States senate candidate;
(4) for other offices having an annual salary of more than $2,500, 1% of the total annual salary;
(5) for offices in which compensation is paid in fees, $10;
(6) for officers of political parties, presidential electors, and officers who receive no salary or fees, no filing fee is required.”

It looks like the legislators have kept their filing fees down – but let’s first look at how that half percent of the annual salary works out for our county offices:

PositionAnnual SalaryFiling Fee
Commissioner$60,560.88$302.80
Sheriff$60,560.88$302.80
Clerk and Recorder$58,560.88$292.80
County Treasurer$58,560.88$292.80
Clerk of Court$58,560.88$292.80
Justice of the Peace$58,560.88$292.80
Superintendent of Schools$58,560.88$292.80
County Coroner$17,568.26$87.84
Data taken from resolution archives at lincolncountymt.us

Simply enough, the structure of the county administrative positions makes the filing fee the equivalent of a high stakes ante – it keeps otherwise qualified people from running for the job.  I’m not saying we have bad people in those offices – but the system limits the potential candidates.  The only particular qualifying criteria I noticed was that the County Coroner needs to have a high school diploma or GED.  I’m guessing the other positions don’t demand the same high educational credentials.

“How legislators are compensated, or paid, for their work as public officials is outlined in Title 5, Part 2 of the 2019 Montana Code Annotated.

  • SALARY RATE- $100.46/day (Equivalent to $12.56/hr)
  • PER DIEM RATE (Session)- $126.12/day
  • TRAVEL RATES (Caucus/Orientation/Interim)- (Note: Rates listed are as of 2/26/2021. (Certain rates change annually)
    • Meals – $7.50(B)/ $8.50(L)/ $14.50(D)
    • Lodging, Helena – $103.00 (plus applicable taxes)” (leg.mt.gov)

If we assume that Montana’s legislature meets for just 90 days every odd numbered year, that every other year salary is $9,041.40. . . or $4,520.70 per year.  Their $15 filing fee, divided by .005 is proportional to a $3,000 annual salary – so the state senators and representatives are protected a bit from the filing fees.  Still $15 isn’t enough to keep me from a Quixotic gesture.  Three Hundred dollars probably is.  The fact that, if I were to win, I would likely have to work with an office filled with my opponent’s supporters isn’t something that attracts me to local politics.

So what would I suggest?  Two changes should bring back the two party system – first, for the local administrative offices, only require the filing fee from incumbents.  Since we have so few competitive races, the counties won’t lose that much money.  This year the loss in fees would have been about $300.  Single party unopposed elections aren’t particularly good fundraisers.

Second, a simple addition to the ballot for any unopposed incumbent.  A spot to vote to keep the candidate, and a spot to vote to send the candidate back to work in the private sector.

Of course there is still the option of trying to secede from a county that doesn’t serve the isolated north well.

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