HELENA — A bill requested by the Secretary of State attempts “an end run” around a Montana Supreme Court ruling that disqualified the Green Party from the 2020 general election because Republicans bankrolled the effort that got the left-leaning party onto the ballot, an attorney for the Montana Democratic Party said.
Following legal challenges to the Green Party’s qualification, the Montana Supreme Court said state law requires minor political parties to present their own petition to gather signatures for candidates.
The bill requested by Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, and carried by Republican Sen. Greg Hertz of Polson, would allow “any elector” to bring such a petition.
“Obviously for election clerks, knowing who the minor party is as an individual is very difficult,” Austin James, an attorney for the Secretary of State’s office, told a House committee on March 17. “It was requiring some statutory clarification as to how we could administer the election.”
The bill passed the Senate on a 30-19 party line vote, with one Republican out that day. It passed a House committee 11-8 on Friday to advance to the full House.
The bill would require petitions be turned in to election offices no later than four weeks before the final date for filing the petition with the secretary of state and sets the same time deadline for withdrawing signatures from the petition. Opponents argue the deadlines could pass before a minor party qualification committee would have to report its spending on the effort.
The proposal matches the deadlines to turn in petitions and withdraw signatures that apply to other election petitions, such as referendums, the secretary’s office said in a statement.
“This bill does nothing less than legalize voter fraud,” said Mike Meloy, an attorney for the Montana Democratic Party. It “lets anyone qualify a minority party for the ballot regardless of whether they have any connection to the minority party. Its sole purpose is to do an end run around the Supreme Court decision.”
Jacobsen’s office did not respond to a question about whether the bill would, as critics argue, clear the way for anyone — whether they are associated with a minor party or not — to present a petition to qualify another party for the ballot.
In 2020, the Montana Republican Party paid $100,000 to gather signatures to qualify the Green Party of Montana for the primary ballot. However, the spending wasn’t reported until April 15, more than a month after the deadline to turn in petitions.
The Green Party itself had said it was not involved in the effort and that it did not support some of the people who filed to run in the primary as Green Party candidates.
The Montana Democratic Party and some petition signers filed a lawsuit after then-Secretary of State Corey Stapleton rejected requests to remove signatures from petitions, stating the party had been certified for the ballot and the deadline to remove signatures had passed.
A District Court said Montana law did not include any deadlines or rules regarding the removal of petition signatures, and that Stapleton could not create them without public input. District Judge James Reynolds granted requests from those who had asked their signature be removed from the petitions, leaving the Green Party without enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Reynolds also said signers had the right to remove their signatures “if they learn that representations made to them as an inducement to sign the petition … were false.”
The Montana Democratic Party argued Green Party candidates could siphon votes away from Democrats and require the party to spend more money trying to influence voters. The Green Party was also removed from the 2018 ballot after the Democratic Party challenged the validity of about 80 signatures. It was never determined who paid the signature gatherers that year, although the Montana Republican Party denied doing so.
Hertz’s bill has seen no opposition testimony in two committee hearings, but Democratic Sen. Janet Ellis of Helena spoke against it on the Senate floor.
“Senate Bill 350 codifies political gamesmanship,” she said. “Unfortunately, the financial disclosure for that happens long after the certification process has happened.”
Democratic Sen. Bryce Bennett of Missoula also questioned the rewrite of the ballot access law.
“They saw the Supreme Court struck down the Green Party because of the shenanigans they pulled last time,” Bennett said. “Instead of trying to create a more transparent and honest approach, they just want to codify the underhanded scams that got the Green Party on the ballot last time.”
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