Helena District Court Judge James Reynolds. Credit: Thom Bridge / Helena IR

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HELENA — A judge on Friday ruled against the Montana Secretary of State’s office in a months-long case over whether the Green Party should allowed on the November ballot

District Judge James Reynolds found Republican efforts to qualify the third party for the primary election were misleading to signatories and that the secretary of state wrongly inhibited voters’ ability to withdraw their support by enforcing an arbitrary deadline. 

The lawsuit, brought by the Montana Democratic Party, sought to invalidate Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s March 6 decision to qualify the Green Party for the primary ballot after it appeared to collect enough signatures across at least 34 house districts.

At that time, the political operation financing the petition effort for the liberal third party was not publicly known. The Green Party itself has consistently denied any involvement with the campaign. 

On March 23, weeks after Stapleton cleared candidates to file under the Green Party’s name, the Montana Republican Party confirmed that it had put $100,000 toward hiring a private company to gather signatures in support of the Green Party. The Commissioner of Political Practices later found that the operation had failed to properly register as a “minor party qualification committee” in violation of campaign finance law

“The actions of the MTGOP and its agents demonstrate that its misrepresentations and failures to disclose in violation of Montana campaign finance law were intentionally designed to create an advantage for the MTGOP at the expense of unwitting signers,” Reynolds stated. 

Additionally, the secretary’s decision to stop validating withdrawal forms submitted after March 6, Reynolds wrote, violated Montana’s Constitution by severely burdening “Plaintiffs’ and other signers’ constitutional right to not associate with a petition sponsored by a political party with which they do not want to be associated.” 

Records collected by the Montana Democratic Party showed that more than 560 voters who submitted withdrawal forms by late May were still listed as supporting the Green Party petition, according to the public report listed on the secretary of state’s website. By validating those withdrawal requests, Reynolds ruled, the Green Party no longer meets the threshold for signatures and should not be included in the upcoming election.

The Montana Democratic Party launched an aggressive effort to notify voters about conservative involvement in the Green Party petition. The party also assisted hundreds of signers in submitting their withdrawal forms. In 2018, Democrats were successful in stopping another obscure effort to put the Green Party on the ballot, which Democrats saw as an attempt to pull votes away from their candidates in tight races. In previous Montana races, Democratic campaigns have also sought to bolster Libertarian candidates to undercut Republican contenders.

In this case, Reynolds’ ruling clarified that state law does not provide a specific date by which petition signers must withdraw their support and that the secretary’s requirements were “arbitrary and capricious.

Over two days of court hearings in July, attorneys for the defendants said the secretary’s office counted withdrawal forms based on the process for other petitions, such as constitutional amendments and referendums. In legal briefs, attorneys also maintained that the March 6 deadline was logical, given that candidates were required to file with a specific party by March 9.  The secretary’s election director, Dana Corson, also testified that the office was not crediting electronic withdrawal requests submitted via DocuSign due to concerns about security. The state Democratic party began using the platform for signatories to sign their forms due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Reynold’s decision faulted the secretary’s office for both of these decisions, as well as for failing to publicly communicate its standards, deadlines, and methods for counting withdrawals. This procedure, Reynolds said, violates the constitution’s requirement for government agencies to be transparent and allow for public input ahead of any final decision.

During his July court testimony, Corson also said his office based its calculations of accepted and rejected signatures off of a non-public dataset that was different from the Petition Signers Report, the record that was previously consulted during the 2018 case involving an effort to qualify the Green Party. Corson did not produce the non-public document as an exhibit for the court to examine.

Although state law and courts have yet to specify a timeline or method for withdrawing support form a political party qualification effort, Reynolds summarized, the secretary’s actions and decisions were still invalid because of the lack of transparency. 

The secretary of state’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the ruling in time for publication. 

The Montana Democratic Party, which brought the case along with a handful of plaintiffs, celebrated Reynolds’ decision.

“Today’s decision is not only a victory for the hundreds of Montanans who were lied to in the course of this effort — it’s a victory for the integrity of Montana’s elections,” said Sandi Luckey, executive director of the party. 

The state Republican Party, which was not a party to this lawsuit, also issued a statement slamming Reynolds’ ruling and attempting to undermine his character.

“This activist judge chastises the Montana Republican Party for attempting to increase choices for Montanans this November,” said executive director Spenser Merwin, “while simultaneously denying any evidence of our public disclosures which were made in compliance with all applicable laws.” 

The Commissioner of Political Practices has yet to announce any penalties or fines against the Montana GOP after finding it violated campaign finance law. A spokeswoman for the Republican party did not respond to further questions about the status of those negotiations.

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Silvers returns to her home state from producing Slate’s daily news podcast What Next. Before that she worked as a producer and reporter in the WNYC/Gothamist newsroom at New York Public Radio. Her work has been featured on NPRThe United States of Anxiety, The Takeaway, Nancy, and Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org and follow her on Twitter.