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Hertz: Not playing fair in the sandbox

by KRISTI NIEMEYER
Editor | April 13, 2023 12:00 AM

By and large, Lake County’s legislative delegation has minded their business this session and not sponsored some of the wackier bills we’ve seen, such as criminalizing teachers for mentioning sex in the classroom, allowing more selenium in Lake Koocanusa to benefit Canada’s huge open-pit mining conglomerate, Teck Coal, or telling science teachers to only teach “facts,” not theories (a great strategy for undermining the entire scientific process, but not at all helpful when it comes encouraging critical thinking or educating future scientists).

Rep. Joe Read’s bill to move oversight of water compacts from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to the Public Service Commission, while an eyebrow lifter, was basically dead on arrival in committee.

More alarming is Polson Senator Greg Hertz’s bill, passed last week by the Senate, that would require the two candidates who receive the most votes in primary elections for U.S. Senate to advance to the general election, irrespective of party affiliation. He describes this as “a trial run” that would conveniently expire after the next Senate election in 2024 – and only impact the race for the seat currently held by Montana’s lone Democrat, Jon Tester.

According to Senate Bill 566’s language: “Seats for the U.S. Senate are set at six years and do not give voters the same opportunity to hold elected officials accountable as those officials in two-year terms in the House.”

Interesting way to twist logic. Or, to not play fair in the sandbox.

This is historically a close contest – Tester won office in 2006 by a 1% margin, and held onto his seat for a third term in 2018 with just 50.3 % of the vote against Republican Matt Rosendale (46.8%) and Libertarian Rick Breckenridge (2.3%). And that was in a state that voted for Trump over Biden by a 20% margin and gave Republicans super majorities in the statehouse.

It’s disingenuous for Hertz – or any other senator who voted for this bill – to claim it’s about anything other than putting an R next to that Senate seat.

Montana, historically, has had its share of independent voters who aren’t aligned with either political party, and Libertarians often qualify for ballots at the local, state and federal level, although they rarely win. The party’s platform calls for “less government, lower taxes, and more freedom” – a mindset that seems like a pretty good fit for independent-minded Montanans.

So why try to squeeze qualifying third-party candidates off the ballot? It’s pure brass-knuckle politics: Libertarians tend to attract more votes from the Republican side of things, thus potentially tilting an election slightly toward the Democrats.

Hertz and his Republican supermajority clearly don’t want to risk a slight tilt – this, despite the fact that they have three-quarters of the delegation, the governor’s seat and every elected position in the Capitol building. You can bet if they thought a U.S. House seat were at risk, they’d be suggesting the same approach there.

So-called “jungle primaries” aren’t a novel idea. They’ve been deployed across the country with mixed feedback – some say the approach helps elect more centrist candidates; others say they deny smaller parties an opportunity to gain political traction.

It’s also not a novel idea for the party in power to want more power. That’s not a R or D thing – it’s a human thing.

"I'm not attacking Sen. Tester," Hertz said of his proposal. "I just want to make sure that the individual that is the winning candidate gets the majority vote."

It’s also a very helpful way for the legislative supermajority to put its thumb on the scale in the 2024 U.S. Senate contest. I’d much rather the voters put their imprint on the ballot instead.

The bill is slated for a hearing before House State Administration Committee at 9 a.m. Friday. I’d suggest those truly concerned about election integrity weigh in.