Judge Sides with Independent Candidates in Montana

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A federal judge has made it a little easier for independent candidates seeking to get on the ballot in Montana by striking the state’s early filing deadline.

U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon ruled that the March deadline was too early for independent candidates. He wrote in his ruling late last week that the deadline “imposes a significant barrier to the exercise of rights protected and guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States and is unconstitutional.”

But the judge left in place the state’s requirement that independent candidates collect thousands of signatures of support — meaning ballot access will still be difficult for the candidates.

Such candidates must gather signatures that equal at least 5 percent of the number of voters in the last election for the office sought.

Haddon did not order the state to set a new filing date for independent candidates, and the Montana secretary of state did not return a phone call seeking comment on the decision’s effect.

The case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana on behalf of independent candidate Steve Kelly of Gallatin County. Kelly sought to run as an independent candidate for U.S. Senate in 2008.

The ACLU argued Montana’s ballot access laws are among the most stringent in the nation.

It applauded Haddon’s decision.

“This is a victory for independent candidates and for all voters,” said ACLU of Montana Executive Director Scott Crichton. “If independent candidates are prevented from qualifying for the ballot, it limits political dialogue.”

Haddon originally ruled Kelly lacked standing in the case. But in 2010, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision and sent it back to him.

ACLU attorney Jon Ellingson said the group has not determined whether it will appeal the portion of the decision that leaves in place the signature requirement. But he said striking just the early deadline will help get more unaffiliated candidates on the ballot.

“I think it will have an impact,” he said. “Whether it is a significant impact or not remains to be seen.”

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