Judge removes Green Party candidates from Montana ballot

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A judge on Friday ordered Green Party of Montana candidates removed from the November ballot after finding the secretary of state improperly rejected requests by voters to have their signatures removed from petitions that qualified the party for the races.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit argued they did not know the Montana Republican Party was behind the effort to qualify Green Party candidates for the ballot.

District Judge James Reynolds said the removal requests of more than 560 people were valid and without those signatures, the Green Party representatives did not have enough signatures in enough legislative districts to appear on the ballot.

The candidates were certified for Montana’s primary ballot on March 6, but it was not disclosed until March 24 that the Montana Republican Party financed the $100,000 signature-gathering effort.

“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 wrote.

Montana GOP Executive Director Spenser Merwin in a statement accused Reynolds of being an “activist judge” and said his party was just trying to give voters more choices.

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

Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Sandi Luckey said the court “in no uncertain terms, stated what Montanans have known for months now — the Montana GOP engaged in a massive fraudulent effort to mislead Montana voters in an effort to tamper with our elections.”

The office of Secretary of State Corey Stapleton did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the ruling. Montana’s general election ballots must be certified by Aug. 20.

The lawsuit came after the Montana Democratic Party contacted people who had signed the petition and informed them its backers were unknown. When it was revealed that the Montana Republican Party paid for the petition efforts, more people wanted to remove their names, court records said.

Stapleton had rejected hundreds of requests to withdraw signatures, saying the requests were not filed or notarized before March 6, when he certified that Green Party candidates could file for office.

However, the judge said there is nothing in state law that created that deadline or a requirement for notarized signatures.

Reynold’s decision marks the second time in two years that he removed Green Party candidates from the ballot, In 2018, in another complaint filed by the Montana Democratic Party, he invalidated signatures that didn’t match those on file with counties and invalidated others that were submitted by people who did not collect the signatures.

It was never determined who was behind the 2018 effort to get Green Party candidates on the Montana ballot, but the Green Party of Montana said it was not behind the efforts.in 2018 and 2020.

The 2019 Legislature passed a law requiring timely reporting of spending on minor party ballot qualification efforts.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan has found the Montana GOP violated the law in connection with this year’s Green Party qualification.