If you oversee voting – the most basic right in a democracy – you should be directly accountable to voters. So said many members of the public who spoke Wednesday at a Missoula Board of County Commissioners hearing on the creation of an appointed elections administrator. Currently, election administration is among the responsibilities of the clerk and recorder – who is elected by voters – and the proposal to create a position beholden to county officials instead wasn’t popular among audience members. “It’s really vital that the person who safeguards our voting process is directly responsible to the voters,” said Daniel Viehland of the Montana Public Interest Research Group, or MontPIRG. Currently, the clerk and recorder is elected and oversees elections, treasurer duties, motor vehicles and document recording. The proposal under consideration would move election duties into the job of a full-time administrator who would be appointed rather than elected and would report to the chief administrative officer; the clerk and recorder would remain elected and continue to oversee the other functions.
At the meeting, a couple people spoke in favor of the proposal as a way to ensure professional expertise. Vondene Kopetski agreed with the rationale that “core competencies” of election administration have changed over the years, and she said as Missoula grows, it becomes more important to hire a person who has knowledge of the field.
Plus, Kopetski said, Clerk and Recorder Vickie Zeier recommended the change, and commissioners should heed the advice of the longtime county official: “If she’s recommending that you hire someone for this position, and you respect her, I would think that you would take her word for it.”
Many others, though, favored an elected position for a variety of reasons. Some members of the public argued it increases voter turnout – important in Missoula for both local and statewide races – and it means the elections administrator has an interest in testifying in Helena when the Montana Legislature considers bills that would suppress voters’ rights.