Voters in four city wards will thin a list of candidates in a primary election approved for September by members of the Missoula City Council on Wednesday.
The two top vote-getting candidates from each ward will advance to the general election in November.
With the filing deadline closed and the field of candidates set, the Committee of the Whole approved spending $51,000 to hold primary contests in the four wards with more than two candidates.
That includes Wards 1, 3, 4 and 5.
“You do have four wards with a three-way race,” said city clerk Marty Rehbein. “The city is not required by state law to hold a primary by virtue of the number of people who have filed for office, but the City Council does have the authority to request a primary election.”
Most members of the council agreed that giving voters a chance to narrow a three-way race down to two ahead of November was a nod to the democratic process. Those same voters would choose from the final two candidates during the general election.
“I think everyone around this table is prudent in how we spend city funds,” said council member Stacie Anderson. “But I think this is an important investment in our democracy and the voters deserve an opportunity to have their majority voices heard.”
While the city adds a primary to ensure that only two candidates appear on the November ballot, it has permitted more than two candidates on that ballot in the past.
In the 2015 general election, three candidates appeared on the ballot in Ward 6. In 2017, Ward 3 saw three candidates on the ballot, while Ward 4 saw four candidates.
That latter election saw two left-leaning candidates split each other’s vote, essentially handing the seat to right-leaning council member Jesse Ramos, who also ran a strong campaign.
On Wednesday, Ramos criticized what he saw as inconsistency in whether or not the city chooses to fund a primary. He voted against the measure, saying it was too expensive.
“Fifty-one grand is a lot of money,” he said. “It’s not going to hurt any of these candidates, but it’s going to hurt the taxpayers. It seems like our city is fairly selective on what they do and don’t want to take to a vote, and they use cost as a malleable term and justification for it.”
Ramos was alone in his views on the issue.
“Us agreeing to a primary is like giving them two chances to commit to their representative democracy,” said council member Michelle Cares. “It will probably raise awareness about the candidates and give people more chances to choose those who reflect the things they care about.”
The primary is set for Sept. 10 and will be conducted by mail ballot.