HELENA – A Lincoln County official says she has a constitutional right to call herself a Republican while campaigning in the county's nonpartisan elections, and she is seeking to strike down a Montana law that bars her from doing so, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.
If Lincoln County Clerk and Recorder Robin Benson is successful in her lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Helena, candidates in counties that hold nonpartisan elections would be able to identify themselves as "Republican" or "Democrat" on the campaign trail. However, such a ruling would not directly apply to judicial elections, said Benson's attorney, Matthew Monforton, and Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl.
Benson, 54, said in her lawsuit that when she ran in 2014, she included the word "Republican" on her campaign signs after Motl's office advised her that doing so wouldn't violate any law. After her opponent complained and her use of the party label was noted in the local media, an attorney for Secretary of State Linda McCulloch said state law specifically prohibits nonpartisan candidates from using the name of any political party in their candidacies.
She said she removed the word "Republican" from her signs after Motl told her she could be removed from office for violating the law. She said she intends to run for re-election in 2018 and plans to identify herself to voters as Republican again.
"Montana's nonpartisan election laws cannot constitutionally impact what candidates say about themselves," Monforton said in an interview.
If the federal court rules in Benson's favor, it wouldn't just be Lincoln County, which began holding nonpartisan elections in 2009, that is affected. Fourteen of Montana's 56 counties held nonpartisan elections in 2014, according to Blake Christensen, the associate director for Montana State University's Local Government Center.
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"If vindicating my client's First Amendment rights has statewide impact, that's not a negative consequence, that's a positive consequence of this lawsuit," Monforton said.
Nonpartisan judicial elections, however, would not be directly affected as candidates in those races are barred from publicly identifying themselves as candidates of a political organization by the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct.
The lawsuit names Motl, McCulloch and Attorney General Tim Fox as defendants. Neither Fox nor McCulloch had a comment on the lawsuit, while Motl said he disagreed with Benson's claims.
Lincoln County set standards for its community when it decided to hold nonpartisan elections, and the question the judge will have to answer is whether those standards can be overturned by one person's First Amendment claim, Motl said.
"To what degree does the community have the right to weigh in on money being spent on elections and the conduct of candidates during elections?" Motl said.