Secretary of State Corey Stapleton said Wednesday he will appeal to the state Supreme Court a Helena District Court judge's order to remove the Montana Green Party's candidates from the ballot this fall.
In a court order Monday, Judge James Reynolds invalidated enough petition signatures to disqualify the party, citing reasons such as petitions signed incorrectly, petition entries without a date, petition affidavits turned in by someone other than who collected them, and other issues.
The order came after a lawsuit filed by the Montana Democratic Party. The suit was also brought by James Larson, former chairman of the party; Donald Judge, former executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO; and Jean Price, a former state legislator. It was filed against Stapleton, whose office approves parties for the ballot, and the Montana Green Party.
Earlier this year, on the last day possible, the Montana Green Party qualified to run candidates in this year's midterms by submitting enough signatures gathered by people around the state. A handful of Green Party candidates filed, including two seeking to oust Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who is running for his third term. One Green Party candidate is a longtime party member and advanced past the primary, the other had previously been on the state Republican Party's payroll.
A Green Party candidate could have potentially pulled more liberal votes away from Tester, whose race against Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale is expected to be close.
Stapleton said he decided to appeal after reading through the order and seeing reaction on social media. Stapleton said he felt the order "distorted key facts of the case" and that the issue is more politically driven than about political parties accessing the ballot.
"This has never been a legal case, it's always been a political case," Stapleton said.
Stapleton earlier this week stood by the work done by elections officials around the state to validate signatures, and Wednesday criticized Reynolds' order.
"Probably most important is (the order) ignored Montana's long-established practice of inclusion in our democracy," Stapleton said. "That's what made me realize since I'm defending Montana. I'm going to ask the Supreme Court to overrule.
"We err on the side of inclusion. We err on that side whether it's (voter) ID, whether it's on signatures. Basically the judge has taken a technical stand that if you're a mom with a baby on your hip outside a supermarket trying to sign a clipboard, and it's not cursive like he thought it should be, then he literally threw that out."
In his order, Reynolds cited instructions on the petition saying each person is "required to sign the person's name and list the person's address or telephone number in substantially the same manner as on the person's voter registration card or the signature will not be counted."
Reynolds then wrote: "These printed petition 'signatures' clearly are not substantially similar to and do not match the signatures in the voter registration records. These signatures should be invalidated."
The Montana Democratic Party praised the order Monday, saying "protecting the integrity of Montana’s elections is of the utmost importance, which is why we’re pleased with today’s ruling.”
Montana Green Party coordinator Danielle Breck was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.
The lawsuit was one of two moves by Montana Democrats questioning how the Green Party qualified for the ballot. A complaint filed with the state Commissioner of Political Practices argues that an out-of-state political consulting firm was involved in gathering signatures to certify the Green Party for the ballot, but that activity was not reported to the commissioner as required by state campaign finance laws.
That complaint claims at least two out-of-state residents with ties to the firm, Advanced Micro Targeting, helped gather signatures.
The Montana Green Party has not reported any paid signature-gathering efforts. The commissioner is in the process of investigating that complaint.