HELENA — Granting the Trump campaign’s request to block a plan to allow Montana counties to conduct all-mail elections in November would “inject chaos into the election,” the governor’s office said Friday.
The statement was included in the state’s response to a request by President Donald Trump’s campaign and Republican organizations to reduce the amount of time the state has to respond to the lawsuit filed Tuesday challenging the voting plan for the General Election.
“To be clear: Montana’s local election officials are many weeks past the point at which a traditional primarily in-person election could be conducted (setting aside the inherent safety risks of large gatherings amidst a pandemic),” the state argued.
Granting the Trump campaign’s motion to block counties from mailing ballots to all registered voters “would inject chaos into the election, and effectively disenfranchise Montanans across the state while inserting immense ethical, constitutional, and safety risks into the election process,” Raph Graybill, the governor’s chief legal counsel, wrote.
Forty-five of the state’s 56 counties plan to hold the November election primarily by mail, with options for early and in-person voting. Counties had until Friday to notify the Secretary of State’s office of their plans.
The Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Montana Republican State Central Committee waited nearly a month before challenging the governor’s Aug. 6 election plan, which was requested by county election officials. The state had an all-mail ballot for the June primary due to the coronavirus pandemic, which “resulted in a safe, secure primary election free of fraud,” the state argued.
The Republican lawsuit alleges, without evidence, that an all-mail ballot would lead to voter fraud. The campaign has filed similar lawsuits in New Jersey and Nevada, but it’s unclear why the campaign and the Republican Party would challenge mail ballots in a state which Trump won by 20 points in 2016.
“My best guess … is that part of the Trump campaign strategy is to sow fear and distrust in the hopes that this will motivate their base and possibly … to provide a basis to refuse to accept the election results,” said Paul Gronke, a professor of political science at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and director of the Early Voting Information Center.
“Unfortunately, they may be listening to the president’s incorrect assessment of the partisan effects of all-mail elections,” said Priscilla Southwell, a professor emerita in political science at the University of Oregon. “My research and that of others, most recently the working paper done at Stanford, have consistently shown that such elections facilitate voting among all types of voters. ”
A day after filing the complaint, the Trump campaign and the Republican organizations asked that that the case move forward quickly to give the parties time to exhaust all avenues of appeal before ballots are mailed on Oct. 9. They asked that the state be given eight days instead of 14 to respond.
“Plaintiffs are not entitled to truncate Governor Bullock’s opportunity to respond to their motion … simply because they chose to wait nearly a month … to take action,” the state argued.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, a Republican who is also named in the voting lawsuit, has agreed to the expedited briefing schedule, the Trump campaign said in its reply to the governor’s response.
“Rather than attempt to defend his directive on the merits, the governor seeks to prevent it from being litigated by opposing a motion to expedite that is commonplace in election cases like this one,” the plaintiffs wrote in response Friday afternoon.
In response to the argument that the plaintiffs waited several weeks to file the complaint, they said that filing earlier was impracticable because, in part, “the deadline for counties to opt-in was not until today. Given the governor’s proclaimed success against COVID-19 … it was not clear whether a critical mass of counties would opt-in” to mail ballots when the governor issued his plan.
“Plaintiffs and the Secretary agree that the case should be expedited, which will ensure the case is decided on the merits one way or another well in advance of the time for sending out ballots,” attorney Thomas R. McCarthy wrote for the Trump campaign and the Republican organizations. The governor’s “attempt to draw out the litigation to threaten that result should not be credited.”
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