Montana Viewpoint

November 11, 2002

Lots of people I know tell me they vote for the person, not the party. To me, that makes good sense for some offices, but at the legislative and congressional levels, it’s got some drawbacks. Some Montana Cities and Counties have non-partisan elections, and they work well enough, it seems. At least I don’t think they’ve gone back to the party ballot.

I’ve always wondered how Republican county surveyors differed from Democratic county surveyors, and why it ever became an elected office. Maybe Republicans make surveying errors to the right. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be partisan.

Party affiliation does tend to serve as a kind of shorthand for the full version of a person’s political viewpoint, and that’s helpful when you’re faced with voting for someone you don’t know anything about. But sometimes politicians choose a party solely because candidates of the other party don’t get elected in that area. In that case the shorthand tells you nothing.

Nebraska is the only state with a non-partisan legislature. “But we know who the Democrats and Republicans are,” a Nebraska legislator once told me. (They also have a unicameral legislature. I’m really tempted to say something about camels being able to get elected in Nebraska, but what it means is that they have only one house. In Nebraska, everyone’s a senator.)

However, taking political party affiliation into account does make an important difference in voting on a congressional or legislative race. Everyone knows that it’s important which party controls congress because, at the national level, there are real differences in philosophy. Well, there used to be until Democrats tried to portray themselves as Republicans in disguise. Why anyone would vote for a “Republican” Democrat when you could vote for the real McCoy is beyond me. But it happens.

In the state legislatures, party matters more than you might think. The party that has the most legislators gets to run the show almost always. (There was an instance in California where Democrat Willie Brown became Speaker in a one vote majority Republican assembly by trading a vote for a favor with one Republican.) They elect the leadership, and the leadership appoints people to committees and determines what legislation goes to what committee. Yes, committees are stacked to lean a certain way; and yes, legislation is directed to a particular committee based on the chances of it passing or dying; and, yes, this is usually purely political.

When the Democrats controlled the legislature way back when, no pro-sales tax Democrat was ever appointed to a Taxation Committee. Both parties keep “troublemakers” off certain committees. A trouble maker is someone who knows more than you do, disagrees with you, and can get better press coverage for his viewpoint than you can.

The leadership also appoints members of their party to chair committees; it’s a very powerful position. The chairman gets to determine when legislation is heard in committee, and can keep a bill from coming out of the committee by not allowing a vote on it. It’s not right, it’s against the rules, and it’s done anyway. But, fortunately it’s not done not often.

That’s because 95% of the bills introduced couldn’t possibly have a Republican or Democratic label put on them. The other five percent can be heavily partisan, however, and they are always on issues that shape the future of the state. These are the bills that are most often manipulated by the leadership to impair or improve their chances of passing or of being amended the “right” way.

That’s where party is important, and that’s why voting party is important. Party affiliation doesn’t come into play much when you consider the number of the bills legislatures act on, but it sure matters on the big issues. That’s good, because vigorous debate on important issues is the basis of democracy.

After all, it’s a difference of opinion that makes a horse race.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620