HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday to keep the Libertarian candidate for secretary of state on November’s election ballots after the head of the state’s Republican Party tried to have the candidate declared ineligible.
The justices, in a 5-1 decision, denied GOP Chairman Jeff Essmann’s request to remove Roger Roots from the ballot because Roots failed to file his required campaign finance disclosure paperwork.
Roots is a long-shot candidate for the open seat against Republican Corey Stapleton and Democrat Monica Lindeen. He has neither raised nor spent any money in his campaign to replace outgoing Secretary of State Linda McCulloch.
Essmann argued that Roots is not eligible as a candidate because he failed to file his business disclosure statement and several campaign finance reports. Under Montana law, candidates who don’t file the documents must be removed from the ballot.
Essmann had asked the court to order county election officials to stop printing ballots and remove Roots’ name.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl responded that Roots filed the documents, though some were late and one was lost in his office after Roots submitted it. Roots also said that he filed all the paperwork that was required of him.
Roots said that he believes Essmann wants him off the ballot because Roots would take votes away from Stapleton in the race. Essmann denied that he was trying to give Stapleton an advantage against Lindeen by striking Roots from the ballot.
The majority opinion written by Justice Patricia Cotter said that Motl and McCulloch properly carried out their duties in approving candidates and certifying election ballots. Statements by Roots, Motl and McCulloch establish that Roots did file the necessary paperwork, she wrote.
Halting the printing of ballots at this late stage would compromise November’s elections, Cotter said.
“It is too late to take this action, as only ten days remain before printed ballots are due at the election administrator offices for mailing,” Cotter wrote.
Essmann said he disagreed with the decision and said that the election is already compromised.
“I think it’s compromised because a name is unlawfully appearing on the ballot,” Essmann said.
Ballots must be mailed to military and overseas voters by Sept. 23, under state and federal laws. Fifty counties had sent their ballots to print as of last week and one, Jefferson County, has already completed its printing, according to secretary of state officials.
Justice Laurie McKinnon dissented with the majority opinion. She wrote that the business disclosure Motl claims to have misplaced has never been produced, which constitutes a failure to file. She adds that Roots also should be removed from the ballot because he did not file four monthly campaign finance reports, but just one report in August that covered the five periods.
She dismissed the idea that changing the ballot would compromise the election process.
“Should the election prove close between two candidates, votes that Roots will inevitably receive will draw into question the integrity of the election and the validity of a candidate who wins by a narrow margin,” McKinnon wrote.
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