HELENA — The Montana Republican Party will drop out of a lawsuit that seeks to allow only GOP-registered voters to participate in its primary elections, but Republican committees in 10 counties plan to press forward with the case.
The likelihood of ending Montana’s open-primary system through the lawsuit is low, based on previous court rulings against the party in the case, according to a statement attributed to the state party chairman, Billings Rep. Jeff Essmann. So the party’s executive board voted to seek to dismiss the case.
“We hope that all parties to the matter will agree that there is no need for the expense of a trial to be incurred at this point,” Essmann said in the statement.
The state party’s attorney will file a motion to dismiss the case, GOP spokesman Shane Scanlon said.
The state party is only one of 11 plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Montana’s open primaries. Matthew Monforton, a state representative and an attorney representing 10 GOP county central committees, said the case will continue without the state party.
“The state GOP’s abandonment weakens the case, but the county committees still have a viable claim,” Monforton said Thursday.
The primary system violates the Republicans’ First Amendment right to associate, the lawsuit alleges. The Republicans contend the system allows Democratic, independent or third-party voters to affect the outcome of their elections by voting for moderates, and that Republican candidates must alter their message to appeal to those crossover voters.
Attorneys for the state have argued that the Republican plaintiffs failed to provide evidence of their claims of crossover voting and the century-old primary system should not be changed based on the party’s assumptions that it happens.
A federal judge agreed with the state’s argument in declining the Republicans’ request for an order to close the June 7 primary, but ruled the case could continue to trial.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court also rejected emergency appeals to close the June primaries.
Essmann said the Republicans could re-file the case at a later date, and the party could weigh in on a similar case from Hawaii that is pending before the 9th Circuit. Monforton said he doubts the state party will re-enter the challenge.
“It is essential that the county committees carry on the fight on behalf of Republicans throughout Montana who are constantly having their primaries manipulated by Democrats and the teachers’ union,” he said.
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