Quentin Rhoades, attorney for the Montana Green Party (copy)

Quentin Rhoades, an attorney for the Montana Green Party, addresses a Helena courtroom in April 2018. 

A bill introduced in a state House committee Thursday would more than double the overall number of signatures required of Montana third parties petitioning to run candidates for statewide office.

In 2018, the Montana Green Party on the last day possible submitted enough signatures to appear on the primary ballot, and entered a handful of candidates into races. The Montana Democratic Party quickly raised challenges to the Green Party's qualification, including in District Court in Helena, over the validity of the signatures.

Judge James Reynolds ultimately — before the November election — ordered the Green Party off the ballot. Reynolds invalidated enough of the 7,386 signatures gathered that the party failed to meet the signature threshold in eight of 38 House districts.

Montana political parties can't run candidates unless they've had someone run for state office in one of the last two general elections who garnered a set amount of votes outlined in state law. If they don't meet that requirement, the party must submit signatures to the Montana Secretary of State to get on the ballot.

To qualify for the ballot, state law requires 5,000 signatures from voters or at least 5 percent of the votes cast for the winning governor in the previous general election, whichever is fewer. It also requires a set amount of those votes from at least 34 of the state's 100 legislative districts.

Rep. Denise Hayman’s House Bill 647 would amend the law so that primary petitions would need to reach the 5 percent threshold at both the state and district levels. That would mean 12,797 total signatures to get on the 2020 ballot, compared to the 5,000 needed in 2018.

“Montana voters depend on this body to pass laws that will guarantee transparent and accountable elections,” the Bozeman Democrat told the House State Administration committee on Thursday. “And we think this is a simple way to (ensure) when a minor party is on the ballot, it has met the same criteria as other ballot issues.

“We don’t want to squash that opportunity for minor parties, but we want to make them responsible and accountable,” Hayman said. “And I feel that increasing this number is not Herculean. It’s not going to limit if you are a serious party and you want to get on the ballot. It just says you need to do some extra work.”

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The bill also adds primary elections to the list of matters for which only Montana electors can gather signatures for a petition. State law requires this only for ballot initiatives, referendums and calls for a new constitutional convention. In the case of the Green Party's efforts to get on the ballot in 2018, people from out of state were paid to collect signatures, though an investigation by the state Commissioner of Political Practices never revealed who paid for those efforts.

Hayman's bill dictates that anyone gathering signatures for a minor party petition, as is already the case for ballot initiative, referendum and constitutional convention petitions, must be a Montana resident and cannot be paid based on signatures gathered.

Lee Enterprises reporter Holly Michels contributed to this story.

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