HELENA — In 2018, an obscure political initiative operating across Montana sought signatures of support from registered voters to qualify the state’s Green Party for the June primary election. Over the course of 19 days in February and March, petitioners working for a company called Advanced Micro Targeting collected 9,461 signatures toward the cause, according to records from Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices (COPP).

But in the months after those signatures were collected — an effort that temporarily certified the Green Party for the ballot — a political mystery began to unfurl. Both the Montana Green Party and the national Green Party denied any involvement in hiring Advanced Micro Targeting to gather signatures. And under Montana’s campaign finance regulations at the time, Advanced Micro Targeting was not required to register as a political committee or disclose who retained the company’s services. 

In a state where minor parties can earn small but notable portions of the vote during close contests between Republican and Democratic candidates, both major parties might have benefitted from the Green Party’s involvement or exclusion in 2018. After the primary, the state Democratic Party challenged the Greens’ petitions in court, arguing that some had been falsified. A judge later declared enough of the signatures invalid to merit removing the Green Party from the ballot before the general election, which featured a particularly competitive U.S. Senate race involving another minor party. In November, a Libertarian candidate took 2.9% of the vote in the race between Democratic incumbent Jon Tester and Republican challenger Matt Rosendale. Tester won by 3.5 percentage points.

Even now, the question of who funded the 2018 signature gathering effort for the Green Party remains unanswered. In the 2019 legislative session, state lawmakers tried to eradicate the loopholes that allowed Advanced Micro Targeting to avoid disclosing the money behind its work.

But those reforms failed to prevent another campaign finance confusion from unfolding during the early months of 2020 — one involving many of the same characters as in 2018. This time, the state Republican Party acknowledged hiring Advanced Micro Targeting to help qualify the Green Party for the 2020 primary ballot. 

Republican officials told Montana Television Network, which first reported the party’s involvement, that it wanted to offer voters “more choice” in the November election. 

Democrats wasted no time in labeling the effort “election fraud.”

The latest political melee has vexed campaign watchdogs and advocates for political accountability, again presenting the question: What does it take to keep Montana elections clean? 

As early as January 2020, signature gatherers from Advanced Micro Targeting again began appearing in towns across Montana, asking registered voters to help put the Green Party on the primary ballot. As in 2018, the state Green Party said it was not behind the campaign. 

“Any individual acting in rude or suspicious behavior claiming to be collecting information on our behalf is not affiliated with our name or mission,” the Montana Green Party said in a Facebook post on February 12, adding that the party did not have any candidates running for U.S. House, Senate or statewide seats.

Also in February, campaign finance disclosures provided new and confusing information about who was involved in the signature gathering. As Lee newspapers initially reported, the national conservative political action committee Club for Growth Action filed paperwork with the state to become a Minor Political Qualification Committee on February 6 — a designation and disclosure that lawmakers created last year in an effort to increase transparency in election spending. But Club for Growth Action soon reversed itself, telling Lee newspapers it planned to cease efforts to put the Montana Green Party on the ballot. 

“This is a cynical campaign tactic designed to mislead sincere voters away from major party candidates toward minor parties who appear to better support their views. If it works, it results in the election of candidates who oppose these voters’ views. But there is no sincerity test in campaign finance regulation.”

Anthony Johnstone, professor of law at the University of Montana

Meanwhile, with its financial backers still publicly unknown, Advanced Micro Targeting continued to collect and submit thousands of signatures in favor of putting the Green Party on the ballot, even as Democrats asked signees to withdraw their support. By early March, county elections officials had verified 13,098 signatures that cleared the qualifying threshold for support in 42 state House districts, comfortably over the minimum requirements, according to records from the secretary of state’s office. On March 6, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton certified that the Green Party was qualified for the primary ballot. 

Weeks later, the financial puzzle behind the Green Party petitions was finally put together when MTN News reported the role of the Montana Republican Party. The party confirmed it had paid Advanced Micro Targeting $100,000 to collect the signatures, having first funnelled the money through a newly created group called Montanans for Conservation that’s at least partly organized by conservative campaign consultant and former Montana GOP executive director Chuck Denowh. 

The state Democratic Party, which had filed a complaint with COPP in mid March concerning Advanced Micro Targeting’s involvement, was quick to slam the GOP for “an effort to tamper with Montana elections.” Democratic Party Executive Director Sandi Luckey also called on Stapleton to “disqualify this fraudulent effort,” despite the fact that Green Party candidates had already registered to run in the June primaries. 

One of those candidates is Wendie Fredrickson, a former auditor for the state Department of Public Health and Human Services who has advanced to the general election for U.S. Senate, a highly competitive race pitting Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock against Republican incumbent Steve Daines. The Cook Political Report has labeled the race a “Toss Up.”

Fredrickson’s authenticity as a Green Party candidate has been undermined in part because the state Green Party has not publicly endorsed her (the Green Party did not respond to multiple requests for comment). Additionally, Fredrickson is supported by CSG Action, a Texas-based conservative group that has contributed $45,500 toward her campaign through the political action committee Go Green Montana, according to federal campaign finance filings. The PAC also spent $9,045 opposing Fredrickson’s Green Party primary competitor, Dennis Daneke. Fredrickson did not respond to a request for comment on her candidacy. 

Several other candidates for state and federal office are running as Greens — so far, the Montana Green Party has not endorsed any of them. In April, party member Cheryl Wolfe posted on Facebook that none of the candidates running for the primary “are actual Greens as far as we can tell,” and that none had “been involved in Montana Green Party activities.”

As some of those candidates now prepare for November’s general election, the state’s campaign finance oversight agency has weighed-in on the funding that put the Green Party on the ballot in the first place. In a decision issued June 25, Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan found that Montana’s Republican Party violated campaign finance laws by failing to properly disclose that it financed the signature collecting campaign. Mangan also found that Montanans for Conservation broke the law by failing to register as a Minor Party Qualification Committee until several months into its operations.

A screenshot of the Montana Green Party’s Facebook post from February 12, 2020.

Both groups dispute Mangan’s findings. In a response to the COPP delivered on July 1, Montana GOP Executive Director Spenser Merwin said the party had properly disclosed the two methods of funding it dispersed through its respective federal and state committees; Merwin said $50,000 was paid to Advanced Micro Targeting through the party’s federal account on January 21 (which was later refunded), while a later payment of $100,000 was made from the state account on February 20. In a statement to MTFP, Merwin reiterated his claim that the party “disclosed all of our expenditures during the reporting periods by the required deadlines and followed the letter of the law.”

Montanans for Conservation also said there was no wrongdoing in the way the group registered with COPP. In an email to MTFP, Denowh said Montanans for Conservation couldn’t register as a Minor Political Qualification Committee in January because the option was not available on COPP forms, so it filed as an Independent Committee instead. In its finding, COPP maintained the group could have filed properly by requesting a committee status change, which it did not do until March 23, a day before MTN first publicized the Republican involvement.

The Republican financial operation, as well as the near absence of the state Green Party from the conversation, threatens to create voter confusion about Montana’s November elections.  Revelations about conservatives’ ostensible support for the Green Party has helped feed a sense of bitterness among some advocates for voter participation. 

“There’s already enough barriers for young people to meaningfully engage in our election system and electoral processes in Montana,” said Amara Reese Hansell, program director for Forward Montana, a nonprofit that advocates for youth involvement in politics. “We’re disappointed by these efforts to sway our election outcomes and hinder the efficacy of our election system. Voters deserve both honesty and transparency from candidates across all parties.”

In such a frequently competitive political state, this is far from the first time that Democrats and Republicans both have strategically bolstered Green and Libertarian candidates. One notable instance occurred in 2012, when a political action committee supporting Sen. Jon Tester’s re-election bid put $500,000 toward a campaign ad for the Liberatarian candidate just days before the November election. In that race, Tester won by less than four percentage points, while the Libertarian candidate took 6.5% of the vote. Political observers fear that method can lead to a long-term trend of voter disengagement.

“This is a cynical campaign tactic designed to mislead sincere voters away from major party candidates toward minor parties who appear to better support their views,” said Anthony Johnstone, professor of law at the University of Montana. “If it works, it results in the election of candidates who oppose these voters’ views. But there is no sincerity test in campaign finance regulation.”

Johnstone also worries that such misinformation may inhibit voters’ ability to make informed decisions at the ballot box. 

“Our tradition of trusting the voter to become informed before casting a ballot is the foundation of our campaign disclosure laws,” Johnstone said. “Theoretically, a Green Party voter will hear of the commissioner’s decision and suspect that its candidates are a front for an opposing party. But we know that’s not true of all voters, and it does not take many voters to turn a close election.”

Despite the COPP’s findings and continued Democratic advocacy, the avenues for removing Green Party candidates from the ballot are slim, and could, according to some state officials, set an ethically ambiguous precedent. 

For the past month, the Montana Democratic Party has funelled its efforts into a lawsuit against the secretary of state in Helena District Court. The June 1 complaint argues that the state office arbitrarily imposed a deadline for Green Party petitioners to withdraw their signatures. Many of those petitioners were first told about the involvement of conservative groups through a Democractic campaign to reach out to signatories in February and March. 

“In response, Plaintiffs, along with hundreds of other signers, informed state and county election officials that they wanted to remove their signatures from the Petition,” the Democrat’s lawsuit said, in an effort to exercise “their right not to associate with a political party.”

Lawyers for the secretary of state said its office recorded all withdrawals that were received by March 6, the day Stapleton qualified the Green Party for the ballot. To continue to verify withdrawal requests after the party had qualified, the state said, could create “massive expenses” for county election officials and open the door to “absurd results.”

“The Secretary of State is obligated to certify the ballot names and designations by March 19,” the state said in its motion to dismiss the case. “The Secretary is unable to do so if any Green Party candidate’s eligibility remains in limbo.”

In its initial filing, lawyers for the Democratic Party said the court should seek to resolve the problem created by the state GOP during its early efforts to qualify the Green Party, and that inaction could prove detrimental to future elections.

“In the absence of declaratory and injunctive relief, the Secretary’s use of a purported deadline to forbid voters from withdrawing signatures obtained through deceptive and misleading tactics will unjustifiably reward such behavior and encourage future petition circulators to engage in similar tactics,” the complaint said. 

The case, which is now being heard by Judge James Reynolds, is due back in court on July 7. 

The Democratic Party’s lawsuit is not the only opportunity for recourse. COPP’s Mangan has not yet issued penalties in the matter, which could be as low as $500 for technical violations. And, Mangan said, knowing who was behind the signature gathering effort at all is a point of consolation. 

“Without the [2019] law, I think we would have been right back where we were — in the dark, as in the previous attempt to qualify the Green Party,” Mangan said, referring to the 2018 primary. “We wouldn’t know about Club for Growth Action thinking about getting in, we wouldn’t know about the Montana Republican Party doing this, we wouldn’t know how much money they spent.”

But Mangan also acknowledges that the state could do more to strengthen transparency in election financing. One idea, he said, is to require campaigns to file a finance report before the secretary of state’s deadline for qualifying a political party for the ballot. 

In terms of enforcement, Mangan said he is operating within the parameters of his office as established by the Legislature. While he has the statutory authority to file a civil lawsuit in district court, Mangan said his office first seeks to negotiate a fine with the responsible parties. The terms of such an agreement for the current violations have not yet been announced.

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.