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Panel Hears GOP Plan for ‘Top Two’ Primary Elections

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Republicans bruising from defeat in last year’s U.S. Senate race proposed Tuesday to reduce the number of candidates on the general election ballot.

The measure would create an open primary that would allow any candidate filing the fee to appear on one ballot.

Currently, Montanans vote on either a Democratic Party or Republican Party primary ballot to choose contenders for the general election. Minor parties with ballot access sometimes hold a primary if there are enough candidates to do so, otherwise their candidates automatically advance to the general election.

House Bill 436 would advance the top two candidates who receive the most votes in the new open primary election to the November election. A candidate receiving more than 50 percent of the vote in a primary would win the election outright — and no general election would be held for that race.

Rep. Scott Reichner, of Bigfork, the sponsor, said the measure would let voters choose candidates from among different parties without having to strictly choose one party for an entire ballot. Many voters do not strongly identify with one of the two major parties, he said.

“Montanans are very independent minded, and would like an open primary,” Reichner said.

He argued the current process also makes it difficult for third-party candidates to be anything but “spoilers” in the general election.

Some in the GOP believe that a Libertarian candidate, Dan Cox, might have contributed to Republican Denny Rehberg losing the 2012 U.S. Senate race by splitting the conservative vote. A Democratically aligned group even sent out mailers pronouncing Cox the true conservative in the race, apparently aimed at fracturing Rehberg’s base.

Cox testified in opposition to the bill Tuesday, arguing he never saw himself as a spoiler. The general election is prime time for third-party candidates to get their ideas aired, he told lawmakers.

“If I was only allowed to participate in the primary system, it is guaranteed my voice would be lessened,” Cox said.

Critics also argued the 69-page measure would lead to a complicated primary ballot packed with multiple Republicans, Democrats and third-party candidates.

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch said the purpose of partisan primary elections is for each party to select one candidate for the general election contest.

A confusing array of candidates could cause unforeseen problems if, for instance, six Republicans, two Democrats and three minor party candidates all appear in one race, she said. The Republican vote could be so fractured in such a case that none of their candidates advance to the general election.

Primary turnout is historically much lower than general election turnout, making it an inappropriate venue to select an ultimate winner in the case of a candidate who met the 50 percent threshold, McCulloch said.

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