HELENA — A state judge Friday ruled that Green Party candidates should not appear on the November general election ballot in Montana, saying the petition that led to their qualification in March is invalid.
District Judge James Reynolds of Helena said several hundred people who signed the petition were improperly denied their request to withdraw their signatures, after discovering that the Montana Republican Party was behind the petition drive.
He said the withdrawal requests must be accepted, and that with those withdrawals, the petition falls short of the minimum needed to qualify the Green Party for the 2020 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.
“The actions of the Montana GOP 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 MT GOP at the expense of unwitting signers,” he wrote.
If Reynolds’ order stands, five Green Party candidates – for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor, attorney general and state Senate in Missoula – will not appear on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s office, which was the defendant in the lawsuit, did not respond to a request for comment, or say whether it planned an appeal.
The Republican Party on Friday called Reynolds an “activist judge” and said he denied evidence showing that the GOP properly disclosed its efforts to finance the petition drive to qualify the Green Party.
“The Democrats spent tens of thousands of dollars to counter the Green Party petition and repeatedly urged the court to reject any evidence that illustrates our involvement was properly disclosed – all to protect Gov. (Steve) Bullock from facing a candidate that wants to expose his record of corruption,” the party said in a statement.
The reference to a candidate who wants to “expose” Bullock is to U.S. Senate candidate Wendie Fredrickson, a former state auditor who has accused the Bullock administration of forcing her out of a job after she called into question some human-service spending.
Bullock is challenging U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, and Frederickson, for now, is on the ballot as well. Reynolds’ order says she and others should be removed.
Republicans also have been supporting an independent political-action committee aiding Fredrickson.
Sandi Luckey, executive director for the Montana Democratic Party, said Friday that Reynolds’s ruling stated the obvious: That the state GOP engaged in “a massive fraudulent effort to mislead Montana voters and tamper with our elections.”
“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,” she said.
Montana Green Party officials also have disavowed the efforts by the GOP to place the party on the ballot, saying they had nothing to do with it and did not have any contact with candidates who filed to run under the Green Party banner.
Reynolds’ ruling came in a lawsuit brought by the Montana Democratic Party and four people who had signed petition in January or February, to qualify the Green Party, and who said later they wanted to withdraw their signature.
In March, the Democratic Party launched an organized effort to get signers to request to withdraw their signatures, saying they’d been deceived. The suit said more than 440 people had filed withdrawal requests, and that if those were accepted, the petition would not succeed.
Stapleton’s office denied many of the withdrawal requests, saying they were filed too late.
But the lawsuit said the deadline imposed by Stapleton is not in state law, and therefore he had no authority to create it.
MTN News reported on the Republican Party’s backing of the petition drive in late March. The party had used another group to route the $100,000 to the petition drive, but said its filing complied with the law and that it wasn’t trying to deceive.