As the Missoula County Clerk & Recorder in 2010, Vickie Zeier was overseeing countywide elections while running for office.
“I would work long hours preparing for the election and then go to campaign,” she told the Board of County Commissioners at their Public Meeting Thursday. “This was extremely awkward.”
Zeier, who was Clerk & Recorder for over two decades, was sharing her experience and recommendation regarding the elections administrator position, once part of the elected Clerk & Recorder’s job and now a separate appointment.
In 2014, the Board of County Commissioners voted to appoint its own elections administrator, who was supervised by the Chief Administrative Officer (by then Zeier held that job).
Rebecca Connors became the first non-elected elections administrator, and will be leaving the job soon to move to Helena, spurring the commission to take another look at the position and how it should be handled, according to a memo from Zeier.
Eight other Montana counties have appointed elections administrators, Zeier said, and she recommended keeping it that way in Missoula.
The elections administrator should be focused on service and what’s best for voters, not on reelection and making political moves, Zeier said.
“Elections have become more and more complex and technical,” she said. “I would not make this recommendation if I did not believe it was the best thing for the voters and the administrators.”
As was the case when the change was implemented, there was opposition to a non-elected official overseeing elections.
State legislator and MontPIRG Executive Director Bryce Bennett thought the position should be part of an elected official’s job, to make it more accountable to voters.
“There’s a lot of value in that, in a world where voter suppression is a real crisis,” he said. “To me, it’s a slippery slope when we want the expertise over the accountability.”
Bennett and current Clerk & Recorder Tyler Gernant advocated that the same position Connors holds — Elections Administrator — simply be moved underneath the purview of an elected official.
That idea concerned Connors though, who said she was glad she answered directly to Zeier, a non-elected official, who wouldn’t get political pushback for her decisions.
“When there is a political attachment to the elections office, it can be seen as keeping the fox in the hen house,” Connors said.
Gernant countered that, although Connors herself hadn’t made partisan decisions, her job was still viewed through a political lens in the recent squabble after Secretary of State Corey Stapleton alleged there was voter fraud in Missoula County.
“I don’t think Rebecca acted partisan, but, ultimately, she was appointed by three Democrats, she reports to someone who ran as a Democrat,” he said.
Two members of the Elections Advisory Committee, a citizen-appointed council that advises Connors on how to run elections, spoke in favor of keeping the position unelected.
Committee Chair Geoff Badenoch said at a recent board meeting they narrowly voted to recommend keeping it as an appointed job, four votes to three.
“We really need someone who is very professionally focused on this job,” Committee Vice Chair Carol Bellin said.
The commissioners are taking comment by phone or email until Oct. 20. They’ll make a final decision at their 2 p.m. meeting Oct. 26.
Commissioners Dave Strohmaier and Cola Rowley weren’t elected when the change was made in 2014. Both posed the question to Missoula County residents: What is or isn’t working about the current system and why should it change?
Rowley said in her time on the commission she hasn’t heard any complaints about the way elections are run.
“Why should we fix something that isn’t broken?”