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New law could boost future attempts to get third parties on the ballot

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Legislation signed into law last week allows any Montana voter to bring a petition placing a minor party on the ballot, which Republicans framed as fixing a deficiency in state code that thwarted their attempt to qualify the Green Party for the 2020 general election.

Senate Bill 350, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, was among a handful of measures requested by the new Republican Secretary of State, Christi Jacobsen, this past legislative session. It also sets out deadlines for petitions that seek to place a third party on the ballot for statewide elections.

Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled 5-2 against then-Secretary of State Corey Stapleton and tossed the Green Party off the 2020 general election ballot, finding the third party hadn’t authorized a signature-gathering effort bankrolled by the Montana GOP. Minor parties are sometimes seen as siphoning votes away from the two major parties, and Democrats have argued the left-leaning party's inclusion was designed to disadvantage their candidates. The Libertarian Party, which can pull votes from Republican candidates, is already qualified for Montana ballots.

“The secretary was without statutory authority to accept the petition at issue in this case, which was not presented, endorsed, or sponsored by the Montana Green Party,” the justices wrote in the September 2020 ruling.

Dana Corson, the state elections director with the Secretary of State’s office, said during a March 17 committee hearing on the bill that legal challenges revealed an “incredibly confusing” process for verifying signatures to place minor parties on the ballot, and said SB 350 would lend consistency to what was then a “patchwork of laws.”

Presenting his bill at that hearing, Hertz argued allowing anyone to bring such a petition forth is necessary, in the absence of a clear way to verify whether the person is a minor party representative or not.

“One thing in Montana is we don’t have party registration, so it's pretty hard to determine who is a member of a political party,” Hertz told the committee. “Unless you just kind of look at their past history, but we don't want to impose on anybody who wants to switch parties from time to time.”

In a press release distributed last week, Jacobsen’s office praised the signing of SB 350 as establishing needed deadlines for certification of minor party petitions to allow candidates to register under the party, as well as deadlines for voters to withdraw their signatures from the petition.

“State and county election officials need to have finality and a clear process to perform their important administrative duties during an election year,” Jacobsen stated in the press release.

In 2020 a state district judge found state law did not establish a deadline for those withdrawals, which were requested by enough voters to bring the number of signatures below the threshold to qualify for the ballot. Voters were allowed to have their names taken off “if they learn that representations made to them as an inducement to sign the petition ... were false.”

The Associated Press previously reported that a Democratic lawyer referred to the bill as an “end run” around the high court’s 2020 decision.

“The current language in Montana code prevents bad actors from impersonating an established political party,” Rep. Denise Hayman, a Bozeman Democrat, argued during the House debate on the bill last month. “This bill strikes out that crucial language that requires honesty in elections and legalizes fraudulently impersonating another party.”

The law also requires that opponents of a minority party petition drive must disclose spending on the effort, similar to that reported by outside supporters of the effort.

SB 350 passed both the House and Senate on party-line votes, with Republicans supporting the measure and Democrats opposed.

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