BILLINGS – A federal judge on Wednesday issued a scathing criticism of Republican efforts to challenge the registrations of nearly 6,000 voters in Montana. The judge slammed the effort as “mischief” that targeted young Democrats and may have violated voter rights laws.
Those statements came in an order released by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula. Molloy scheduled an Oct. 14 hearing in a lawsuit that alleges Republicans had aimed to intimidate voters in key Democratic precinct.
The challenges were filed in late September — about five weeks before the Nov. 4 election.
“The timing of the challenges is so transparent it defies common sense to believe the purpose is anything but political chicanery,” Molloy wrote. He added that Republicans “filed false affidavits with the express intent to disenfranchise voters.”
Molloy denied an injunction against the GOP sought by Montana Democrats, who wanted to block any more voter challenges. He suggested there was less urgency to the case after Secretary of State Brad Johnson on Monday instructed election officials not to process the initial challenges.
In late September, Republican leaders filed affidavits against 5,977 registered voters in seven counties, claiming a change of address had invalidated their registrations. Five of the counties were among only six that went to Democrats in the last presidential election.
Republicans sent out letters Tuesday withdrawing their challenges after Johnson stepped in and county election officials rejected at least 2,300 Republican challenges as invalid.
That was not before the party suffered a wave of negative publicity and condemnations from nonpartisan voter rights groups. Republicans had hoped that by abandoning their challenges, the issue would quickly fade.
But Democrats said Wednesday they would continue to press their case. They want a ruling from Molloy to block future blanket challenges of voter registrations.
“What we’re seeking is a clear legal determination that these types of mass, illegitimate challenges are in violation of federal law,” said Caleb Weaver with the Barack Obama campaign.
The Obama campaign has provided legal assistance to the Montana Democratic Party and two of its members who are plaintiffs in the case. Democrats have provided no evidence to back up their claims that Republican Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign was involved.
The McCain campaign has declined comment on the case.
Montana Republican spokesman Bridger Pierce said Wednesday that he could not immediately discuss Molloy’s ruling.
“Right now, the order is being reviewed by our attorneys,” Pierce said.
Montana Republicans have described their party’s executive director, Jacob Eaton, as the architect of the challenge effort. His name appeared on many of the affidavits submitted to county officials alleging voters had changed their address but not their registration.
In his Wednesday order, Molloy singled out Eaton for criticism and appeared to mock the Republican’s claim that he filed the challenges to protect against voter fraud.
“Eaton targeted counties with young and likely Democratic voters, who might have changed their mailing address,” Molloy wrote. “In his zeal to protect what he sees as Montana’s fragile democracy from these transient hordes, Eaton ignored the very law that answers his challenges.”
The state law that allows anyone to challenge a voter’s registration also says voters can change their residence and still vote one last time in their old precinct. Hundreds of the voters challenged by Republicans fell into that category.
Eaton has not returned multiple calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.
But in a Tuesday letter to county election officials, he defended his actions.
“My intent was to ensure that voters are properly registered,” he wrote, adding that he was withdrawing the challenges. “I hope that this ends the controversy.”
One political observer said the Democrats appeared to be squeezing the most publicity they could from claims the Republican effort was part of a nationwide GOP effort to suppress votes.
Craig Wilson, a political analyst at Montana State University-Billings, said that could hurt the GOP leading into the final weeks of the election.
“In some voters minds in Montana, the negative ideas have been planted about what the (Republican) party did,” Wilson said. “Some damage has already been done.”
Brad Anderson, GOP chairman in Montana’s largest county, Yellowstone, said any backlash would come from voters who would not vote Republican regardless.
“There are certainly people who are going to think voter suppression. But people who assume Republicans are up to voter suppression are going to be hardcore Democrats and voting Democratic anyway,” Anderson said.
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