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Decision not expected soon in Montana Democrats' attempt to get Green Party off ballot

Lawyers representing the Montana Democratic Party told a Helena judge Tuesday why they think the Green Party should be removed from the ballot in upcoming elections, but a decision seems unlikely before the June 5 primary.

A hearing before Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Kathy Seeley was continued to April 30 because a lawyer representing the Secretary of State's Office did not have a chance to make her arguments before the judge.

The Secretary of State is being sued by the Democratic Party, which claims the state incorrectly certified the Green Party for the ballot. The Montana Green Party, which is also named in the suit, will be able to call witnesses to testify when the hearing continues as well.

In the lawsuit, filed at the start of April, the Montana Democratic Party claims the Montana Green Party didn't gather enough valid signatures to qualify to get its candidates on the ballot this year and asked a judge for an injunction to get the Green Party kicked off ballots.

The Montana Green Party needed to gather 5,000 signatures from at least 34 of the state House districts to qualify for the ballot. Though Secretary of State Corey Stapleton certified 7,386 signatures from four counties, Democrats argue the Green Party gathered enough valid signatures from only 30 of the state House Districts, not the 34 required.

Some signatures certified by county clerks and Secretary of State are invalid, Democrats argue, because of issues like signatures that don't match what's on the voter's file.

The Green Party submitted signatures to counties at the last minute and was certified for the ballot on the last day possible, March 12. The same day,  several Green Party candidates filed paperwork to appear on the ballot.

While some candidates, such as U.S. Senate candidate Steve Kelly of Bozeman, have a long association with the Green Party, other candidates did not. That includes Kelly's primary opponent Tim Adams, who has been on the payroll of the Montana Republican Party in the past, as well as House District 85 candidate John Gibney of Hamilton, who was denounced by the Green Party for derogatory comments on immigrants.

The late addition of the liberal Green Party could pull votes away from Democratic candidates, which could be important in tight races such as that faced by incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat running for his third term in what's expected to be a closely contested race.

Ballots for the June 5 primary have already been printed with Green Party candidates included and ballots for military members serving overseas have already been sent. By the second week of May, absentee ballots should reach voters across the state.

Seeley on Tuesday said she didn't expect to make a decision about whether the Green Party will remain on the ballot before the primary vote.

"I don't see that deciding this before the primary really addresses an issue with the ballots that have gone out," Seeley said.

Kevin Hamilton, the attorney for the Montana Democratic Party, said he didn't see a problem with a decision coming after the primary.

"What really matters here is the general election and that's in November," Hamilton said.

Stapleton and the Secretary of State's office are being represented by Emily Jones, a Billings lawyer. 

The Billings Gazette has previously reported that Jones was sanctioned by Seeley in 2017. The sanction came after Seeley found Jones interfered with the Commissioner of Political Practices' attempt to gather evidence in a case and directly contacted witnesses, cautioning them against sharing information about her husband's political consulting firm. Jones' husband is Jake Eaton, who runs 47 North Communications.

The Montana Green Party is represented by Quentin Rhoades, who in the past has represented the conservative group American Tradition Partnership, as well as former state legislator Republican Art Wittich, who was found guilty by a jury of accepting illegal contributions in his 2010 senate race.

The Montana Democratic Party has also filed a compliant with the state Commissioner of Political Practices, arguing that a Nevada political consulting firm called Advanced Micro Targeting paid people to gather signatures but did not report its activities in finance reports. The commissioner has accepted the complaint and is in the process of investigating.

James Larson, former chairman of the party; Donald Judge, former executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO; and Jean Price, a former state legislator, have joined the Democrats in filing the lawsuit.

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