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Judge blasts GOP voter registration challenges

Judge blasts GOP voter registration challenges

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HELENA - U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy issued a scathing order Wednesday lambasting the Montana Republican Party for challenging the registrations of thousands of Montana voters, but stopped short of an actual ruling in the case.

In his 19-page order, Molloy denied a temporary restraining order to the Montana Democratic Party, which sought to stop thousands of GOP-led voter challenges from moving forward. Molloy wrote that Secretary of State Brad Johnson "astutely" asked counties not to process the Republicans' voter challenges, which effectively alleviated a crisis that would have required a restraining order.

Johnson is a Republican.

Molloy did not rule on the Democrats' other arguments that the GOP effort violated federal election law, but scheduled a hearing on that matter next week.

However, the judge left little doubt about his thoughts on the voter challenges.

"The timing of these challenges is so transparent that it defies common sense to believe the purpose is anything but political chicanery," Molloy wrote.

Elsewhere, the judge wrote that Jake Eaton, executive director of the Montana Republican Party focused his ostensible worry over voter fraud not on all Montanans, but only on those who live in predominantly Democratic-leaning locations, such as Missoula and Lewis and Clark counties, where the vast majority of the 6,000 challenged voters reside.

He also wrote that had the state of Montana instituted such a voter fact-checking drive so close before an election, it would clearly violate federal law.

Molloy's ruling came in response to a federal lawsuit filed Monday seeking to stop voter challenges launched last week by the Montana Republican Party.

The GOP abandoned those challenges Tuesday night.

The Republicans' concerns stemmed from registered voters who live at addresses different from the one listed on their voter registration information. The party requested counties ask the voters to prove their current address.

Many of the counties did not act on the requests and only a few hundred voters received letters from their local elections office asking them to clear up the address confusion.

The Montana Democratic Party and the Barack Obama presidential campaign in Montana charged that the challenges were a transparent effort at suppressing voter turnout in predominantly Democratic areas. Had the challenges gone forward, all these voters would have received a letter in the weeks before Election Day asking that they provide notarized proof of their current address.

The letters, the Democratic Party maintained, would have confused voters, especially first-time voters, or led people to believe they were ineligible to vote.

Although the state GOP has since withdrawn all of its voter challenges and vigorously denied that they were politically motivated, Art Noonan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, told reporters Wednesday he was pressing forward with the lawsuit.

"I'm a Butte boy," he said. "They taught us a long time ago that if you want to stop bullying on the playground, you stand up to the bully."

Caleb Weaver, a spokesman for the Obama presidential campaign in Montana, which is assisting the state party in the suit, said the party may seek punitive damages or its legal fees, if they succeed in court.

"All options are on the table," he said.

Republican Party spokesman Bridger Pierce pointed out that Molloy was appointed by Democratic President Clinton.

A few words

Excerpts of U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy's order concerning the Montana Republican Party's challenge to the registrations of thousands of Montana voters:

"(Montana Republican Party Executive Director Jake) Eaton targeted counties with young and likely Democratic voters, who might have changed their mailing addresses without changing their voter registration information."

"In his zeal to protect what he sees as Montana's fragile democracy from these transient hordes, Eaton ignored the very law that answers his challenges."

"One can imagine the mischief an immature political operative could inject into an election cycle were he to use the statutes, not for their intended purpose of protecting the integrity of the people's democracy, but rather to execute a tawdry political ploy."

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