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BILLINGS – Irked at what they believe is Democrats interfering in their primary elections, Montana Republican Party delegates on Saturday called for closing their primaries and allowing only registered Republicans to vote in them.

Delegates also voted to support a second measure calling for quick runoff elections in general elections between the two candidates with the most votes. Runoffs would take place if no candidate won the majority of the votes in the general election.

Neither resolution would take effect unless the Legislature passes laws to implement them or a court orders them. They simply reflect the viewpoints of a majority of the 207 delegates at the Republican convention.

The resolution for a closed Republican primary sparked a debate.

Matthew Monforton, a Bozeman attorney and House candidate, said 35 states have closed primaries.

“If we want to remain the party of (Abraham) Lincoln and (Ronald) Reagan and not the party of the teachers’ unions, we need to follow suit,” he said.

But state Rep. Jeff Welborn of Dillon opposed the call for closed Republican primaries.

“We have been here for two days. We have talked about unifying our party. This is a minority maker,” Welborn said.

Some delegates said they had received calls from Republicans opposing closed primaries and saying they would not register as Republicans.

Former state Rep. Bob Wagner of Harrison supported closing the primary.

“The Republican Party is being forced to have general elections in the primary,” he said. “The primary process is to bring your best candidate for the general election.”

Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls called closed primaries “a really bad idea.”

“No one won or lost elections because we had an open primary,” Fitzpatrick said.

Primaries are won by candidates knocking on doors, raising money and working hard, he said.

The delegates adopted the provision for quick runoff elections in general election.

Rep. Bill Harris, R-Winnett, said that neither Gov. Steve Bullock nor U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, both Democrats, received a majority of the votes cast in 2012. If there had been a runoff-election requirement, both Bullock and Tester would have faced voters another time – but only against their Republican opponents.

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State Senate president Jeff Essmann of Billings wrote four election-related provisions, which also included endorsement of a November ballot measure to cut off voter registration at 5 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day, which is on Tuesday. Delegates endorsed this provision.

Since 2006, people have been able to register to vote up to 8 p.m. on Election Day and cast their votes. Essmann said passage of the ballot measure would allow election administrators to focus solely on administering fair and clean elections on Election Day and provide election results in a timely manner.

Convention delegates also supported another Essmann proposal, which called for changing how the commissioner of political practices operates.

He criticized the current setup, saying it allows the commissioner to be investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury on campaign and ethics complaints. Under Essmann’s plan, a new multi-member commission, independent of the executive branch, would serve as the judge and jury in these cases, while the commissioner would investigate and prosecute the cases.

Finally, the delegates – on a voice vote – unanimously supported a resolution by Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, in support of turning over federally managed public lands to the states. There was no debate.

They rejected a resolution by Steve Dogiakos of Choteau in support of a constitutional amendment to eliminate the post of lieutenant governor.

Chuck Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached by email at chuck.johnson@lee.net or by phone at (406) 447-4066 or (800) 525-4920.

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