When Montana voters filled out their primary ballots this week, they did not get a chance to vote for third party candidates. While some third party politicians objected, others have a different problem with primary elections: They don’t think they should exist at all.
In 2001 the Legislature passed a law declaring that in order for political parties to have a slot on the primary ballot, they have to field candidates in at least half of the races. Even larger third parties have not been able to accomplish this.
Bob Kelleher, a Butte lawyer and a candidate for U.S. Senate running on the Green Party ticket, is not happy about the new law. His campaign manager, Kevin Vainio, charges that the state unfairly favors the two major parties. While Kelleher is running unopposed within his party, so is Democratic incumbent Max Baucus, Vainio says. He adds that the name recognition of being on a primary ballot is an important advantage.
Vainio accuses Secretary of State Bob Brown of “giving equal protection to Baucus and his November Republican opponent but giving the shaft to the Green and Libertarian candidates.” Mike Fellows, head of Montana’s Libertarian Party, disagrees. “It would be nice to see your name out there on a ballot on the primary in that sense, but then there’s the cost to consider,” Fellows says.
It is cost, not an attempt to hinder third parties, that is behind the law, says Elaine Graveley of the Secretary of State’s elections office. The impetus for the law was a 2000 primary election in which two Reform Party candidates squared off for a legislative seat in Lincoln County. Under the old law, every county in the state then had to have a Reform Party primary.
“Why would you want 55 counties to have to print a ballot when it only affects one?” Graveley asks.
Fellows takes the cost argument one step further.
“Personally, I think the primaries are a waste of money given the amount of turnout and the cost of primaries,” he says. Fellows says he would like to see the parties pick their own candidates at their conventions and abolish the primaries altogether. While Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Stan Jones has the endorsement of his party, the Montana Green Party opted not to endorse Kelleher at its convention earlier this year. Kelleher decided to continue his campaign nonetheless, which has rankled some in the state party.
All in all, the primaries still have an important function and are worth keeping, Graveley says. “It gives the people a chance to narrow it down and make the decision easier.”