GOP Committee Sues to Close Montana Primaries

Bozeman attorney filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee

By Matt Volz, Associated Press

HELENA — Ravalli County Republicans sued the state Monday in an attempt to require voters to register with the GOP in order to participate in the party’s primary elections.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court seeks to close Montana’s open primaries to prevent crossover voting by Democrats and independents. It asks a federal judge to strike down as unconstitutional Montana laws allowing any registered voter to participate in any party primary.

Attorney Matthew Monforton of Bozeman filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee. Monforton is a state House candidate who successfully pushed the state Republican Party this spring to add support of a closed-primary system to its platform.

“What we’re seeking are the kinds of primaries that most other states have in which Republicans select their own nominees,” he said.

Twenty-four states have closed Republican primaries, and 19 states have closed Democratic primaries, according to the nonpartisan Maryland-based group FairVote. In 2011, a federal judge ruled that Idaho’s open-primary system was unconstitutional, prompting that state’s Legislature to pass a law closing its primary elections.

Monforton said the Idaho lawsuit took nearly three years to litigate, and he filed his lawsuit with the 2016 elections in mind. He expects other county political committees to join it, he said.

But for now, the state party’s leadership is staying away from the issue. Executive Director Bowen Greenwood said the Montana Republican Party is focused on the 2014 elections.

“My personal opinion is that it’s a very strong idea,” Greenwood said. “But I’m not inclined to spend valuable time and resources on something that can’t possibly have any impact until 2016 while we are in the process of winning 2014.”

Montana Democratic Party spokesman Bryan Watt criticized the lawsuit as an attempt to shut Montana voters out of the election process.

He said the state must “protect the freedom to vote in fair and open elections for all eligible voters. It’s critical that we bring more Montanans and more voices into our election process, not fewer,” Watt said in a statement in response to an Associated Press query.

The lawsuit names Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch and Ravalli County’s election administrator as defendants. It says open primaries allow Democrats and other non-Republican voters to select Republican nominees for office and those who serve on GOP precinct committees.

That prevents GOP members from acting together to select nominees and internal leaders, which is a violation of the constitutional right of freedom of association, the lawsuit claims.

McCulloch declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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