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MISSOULA — A Montana judge ruled Thursday against a petition to enable the electronic collection of ballot initiative-qualifying signatures and extend the deadline to submit those signatures in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Missoula District Judge John Larson said in his ruling that plaintiff New Approach Montana, which is trying to place an initiative legalizing adult-use marijuana on the 2020 ballot, failed to show that its constitutional rights were infringed, and that election integrity outweighs extant law’s burden on those rights.

“We are obviously disappointed in the outcome of the case. We are considering an appeal and are assessing all of our options on how to move forward,” said New Approach political director Pepper Peterson. 

New Approach sued the Montana secretary of state’s office and Montana Department of Justice April 6, claiming that Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home order made it infeasible to collect enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot. The plaintiffs requested a temporary allowance to collect signatures electronically instead of in-person, as current election law requires. New Approach also asked that the deadline for signature submittal be extended from June 19 to Aug. 3.

DOJ attorney Pat Risken said during a Tuesday teleconference hearing that despite assurances from New Approach that the group’s electronic signature system is secure, electronic signature collection remains a security risk. Secretary of state office attorney Austin James said election staff are already struggling with pandemic-related issues, and that implementing a verification system would be an added burden.

Risken also argued that it didn’t make sense for New Approach to sue the DOJ and secretary of state to overrule laws passed by the state Legislature when it was Bullock’s executive order that created the hardship.

“Why in the world isn’t the governor party to this case?” Riskin said.

Larson’s ruling said New Approach would be better served by seeking assistance from the governor, or by pursuing legislative change in the 2021-2022 session.

“The Court is also not in a position to ascertain fifty-six (56) county clerks’ ability to implement to any of the requested relief under the current circumstances with many courthouses closed and operating with limited staffing. The Governor is in the best position to suspend certain laws,” Larson wrote.

Hunter Pauli is a Seattle-born, Missoula-based freelance investigative reporter and a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism.You can follow Hunter on Twitter.