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Courts: Green Party will stay off the ballot in Montana
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Courts: Green Party will stay off the ballot in Montana

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Montana Democratic Party v. Secretary of State

Matthew Gordon, a lawyer representing the Montana Democratic Party, speaks in the courtroom of Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge James Reynolds on July 14 in a case about the Green Party appearing on the ballot this year. Austin James, an attorney for the secretary of state, is seated, while attorney Matt Meade stands at right.

Both the Montana Supreme Court and U.S. District Court in Helena issued orders Wednesday that the Green Party will remain off the ballot in Montana for this election.

The state Supreme Court issued its 5-2 order after Secretary of State Corey Stapleton appealed a Lewis and Clark County District Court decision from earlier this month that took the Green Party off the ballot.

In that case, the Montana Democratic Party and a handful of people who had signed petitions to qualify the Green Party had sued the secretary. They claimed Stapleton did not follow the law in denying their requests to withdraw their signatures from the qualifying petitions.

Those requests, along with hundreds more, came after signers learned the effort to qualify the Green Party was paid for by the Montana Republican Party. The Green Party has said they were not involved in any effort and had not endorsed any Green Party candidates this year.

Helena Judge James Reynolds found that Stapleton wrongly did not accept withdrawal requests submitted after he approved the Green Party to be on the primary ballot, or requests submitted electronically. After that, the Green Party was left with too few signatures to remain qualified.

The state Supreme Court issued its order Wednesday, the day before the Montana general election ballot must be certified. The order did not provide the court's reasoning, but said that would follow.

The order was signed by Chief Justice Mike McGrath, Justice Jim Shea, Justice Laurie McKinnon, Justice Dirk Sandefur and Justice Ingrid Gustafson.

Justice Beth Baker and Justice Jim Rice said they would reverse Reynolds' decision.

Also Wednesday, more than two dozen Republican state lawmakers sent a letter to the Supreme Court asking McGrath and Sandefur to recuse themselves, claiming partisan ties. That letter did not reach the court before the order was issued.

The Montana Democratic Party praised the court's order Wednesday.

“Montanans have known for months now that the Montana GOP engaged in a massive fraudulent effort to mislead Montana voters and tamper with our elections,” said party executive director Sandi Luckey in an emailed statement. “Today’s decision, at long last, secures justice for hundreds of Montanans who were lied to, and puts an end to this shameful attack on the integrity of Montana’s elections.”

The case in federal court was filed by two men running as Green Party candidates this year and two people who voted for Green Party candidates in the primary, suing Stapleton. In that case, the candidates and voters claimed they faced disenfranchisement if the Green Party was removed from the ballot.

In his order, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen said "an injunction would nonetheless be inappropriate, given the parallel proceeding before the Montana Supreme Court."

Bozeman lawyer Matthew Monforton, who represented the voters and candidates, said Wednesday he had filed a notice that he will appeal the order.

"Nearly 800 Montanans voted for Green candidates when the State mailed ballots in April and May. The courts today ruled that the Green Party's ballot petition can be invalidated by signers withdrawing their signatures in late May — well after most voters had cast their ballots," Monforton said in an email. "The constitutional rights of these voters to have their ballots counted is clearly being violated, which is why we are appealing immediately."

Though ballots must be certified Thursday, Monforton said they're not mailed until Sept. 18 at the earliest, so he believes there is still time for an emergency appeal.

The secretary of state's office did not return a request for comment Wednesday after the orders were issued.

Green Party candidates can be seen as drawing votes from Democrats, which the Montana Democratic Party pointed out in court makes it harder to get Democrats elected in a state where that can already be a heavy lift. Libertarians, who were already on the ballot, can draw votes from Republicans. In 2012, a liberal group spent $500,000 on ads for a Libertarian candidate in a move some argue helped elect a Democrat to the U.S. Senate by picking off enough votes from the GOP candidate.

A handful of people filed as Green Party candidates this cycle, including in the hotly contested U.S. Senate race featuring incumbent Republican Steve Daines and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

The Montana GOP, while not named in either lawsuit, tried to intervene but was denied by the state Supreme Court. The party issued a statement Wednesday critical of the outcome.

"While claiming to support the integrity of our elections, the Montana Democratic Party spent tens of thousands of dollars to suppress Green Party voices and limit Montanans' choices this November, all so Gov. Bullock won't have to face a Green Party candidate that will expose his administration's corruption," executive director Spenser Merwin said in an emailed statement.

This is the second time in two years that the Green Party was qualified for and then removed from the ballot. It's still unknown who financed a 2018 signature-gathering effort. In 2019 the state Legislature passed a law requiring groups that spend money to qualify a minor party to register as a minor party qualification committee.

Early this year, people showed up in cities around Montana gathering signatures to get the Green Party on the ballot. 

Reporters around the state tried to figure out who was financing the effort, including attempting to contact the Montana Republican Party and its operatives with no success.

Initially a national group called Club for Growth Action, a conservative political action committee, filed as a minor party qualification committee but almost immediately after said they had no intention of turning in signatures.

On March 6, three days before the deadline for candidates to sign up to run for office, the secretary of state certified the Green Party for the ballot. Several candidates filed under the party's name. At that point it was still unclear who paid to get the party qualified.

At the end of March, the state GOP announced they'd funded the effort, just before a campaign finance reporting deadline would have made it clear.

The GOP had reported its spending to the Federal Elections Commission, not the typical place to look for state-level political spending, showing the Montana Republican State Central Committee payed $50,000 to "ATM," as it was listed, or Advanced Micro Targeting, on Jan. 21. That's the company that paid petitioners to gather signatures.

That was the only disclosure clearly filed before the March 6 certification of the Green Party for the ballot.

The Montana Republican Party on March 30 filed a report showing a $100,000 in-kind contribution to a group called Montanans for Conservation. And while Montanans for Conservation registered as a political committee before March 6, they incorrectly filed as an independent committee, not a minor party qualification committee.

Montanans for Conservation also listed the year they were active, one of the ways to sort through hundreds of committees in the state campaign finance database, as "2000," making it difficult to find the group.

In a separate matter, the state Commissioner of Political Practices has found that the state GOP broke campaign finance laws and should have registered as a minor party qualification committee. The Montana Republican Party has disputed the commissioner's findings, and that matter is still pending.

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