HELENA — Five Green Party candidates, including several in top statewide races, will not be on Montana’s Nov. 3 general election ballot, as the Montana Supreme Court and a federal judge Wednesday rejected appeals to keep them on.
The court orders, which came one day before the 2020 general election ballot must be certified for printing, are the latest development in a bizarre battle between state Republicans and Democrats over the Green Party ballot status.
The Green Party qualified for the ballot in March, by petition, enabling six candidates to file for office under its banner.
But it was revealed later that the Montana Republican Party had financed the petition effort – and the Democratic Party then organized to remove the Greens, saying their qualification was a GOP plot to undermine Democrats in key races this fall.
The Democratic Party filed suit in June, leading to state District Judge James Reynolds’ Aug. 7 ruling that said the Green Party qualifying petitions did not have enough valid signatures.
On Wednesday, the Montana Supreme Court ruled 5-2 to uphold Reynolds’ order and said it would explain its reasoning later.
In a separate ruling Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen of Missoula declined to intervene in the case, rejecting a request from Green Party candidates and voters to block Reynolds’ order.
He said the case didn’t warrant the “extraordinary remedy” of a federal court stepping in, at this point – and, that he doubted the Green Party arguments would succeed on their merits anyway.
Matthew Monforton, a Bozeman attorney representing the Green Party voters and candidates, said he would appeal Christensen’s ruling.
“Nearly 800 Montanans voted for Green candidates when the state mailed ballots in April and May,” he said. “The constitutional rights of these voters to have their ballots counted is clearly being violated.”
State Democratic Party Executive Director Sandi Luckey said Wednesday that the state GOP “engaged in a massive fraudulent effort to mislead Montana voters and tamper with our elections.”
“Today’s decision (by the Supreme Court) at long last secures justice for hundreds of Montanans who were lied to, and puts an end to this shameful attack on the integrity of Montana’s elections,” she said.
Spenser Merwin, executive director for the state Republican Party, said while Democrats are claiming to support “the integrity of our elections,” they spent “tens of thousands of dollars to suppress Green Party voices and limit Montanans’ choices this November, all so Gov. (Steve) Bullock won’t have to face a Green Party candidate that will expose his administration’s corruption.”
Bullock, a Democrat, is opposing Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines this year, in one of the most closely watched Senate contests in the nation.
The Green Party candidate in the U.S. Senate race, Wendie Fredrickson – who will now be off the ballot – is a former state auditor, who had alleged the Bullock administration pressured her to ignore questions about federal payments to favored constituents.
Wednesday’s rulings mean that five Green Party candidates – Fredrickson and candidates for the U.S. House, governor, attorney general and a state Senate seat in Missoula – will not appear on the Nov. 3 ballot, which will be certified Thursday.
A sixth Green Party candidate lost the June 3 primary battle against Fredrickson, in the Senate race.
The Green Party gained its ballot status through a petition drive carried out in January and February.
Yet, at the time, the actual Montana Green Party said it was not involved in the effort. It said on its Facebook page that it appeared “conservative” forces were behind it.
About two weeks after the Green Party had been certified for the ballot and six candidates had filed to run under its banner, MTN News reported that the state Republican Party had spent $100,000 on a company to organize the petition drive.
The Montana Democratic Party then organized an effort to persuade those who signed the petition to formally withdraw their signatures, saying they’d been deceived.
On June 1, the party and several of the signers sued Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, saying he had improperly denied their withdrawal requests. They said if he accepted the withdrawals, the petition wouldn’t have enough signatures to qualify the Green Party for the ballot.
Reynolds, a state district judge in Helena, ruled in their favor Aug. 7, said the withdrawals should be honored and therefore the petition didn’t have enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.
In his 50-page order, Reynolds essentially said the state GOP engaged in “constructive fraud” and “negligent representation” by not timely disclosing its role in the petition drive, thus justifying acceptance of the signature withdrawals.
Last week, two Green Party voters and two Green Party candidates added to the legal fray, asking the federal court to overrule Reynolds and order the Green Party candidates back on the ballot.
That lawsuit said Reynolds’ order improperly disenfranchises voters who chose Green Party candidates in the June 3 primary. Christensen rejected their request to block Reynolds’ order while the case proceeded.