It's unclear who has submitted petitions to qualify the Green Party for the ballot in Montana this year, after a national political action committee says it wasn't them and the state Green Party posted on Facebook saying they had no plans for an effort this year.
Packets with signatures have been dropped off around the state in an effort to try to qualify the Green Party. In Montana, a minor party must submit enough signatures from enough areas of the state to gain access to the ballot. Third-party candidates can draw votes from the major parties, with the Green Party seen as siphoning votes from Democrats while Libertarians, who are qualified to appear on the ballot already, can take votes that might otherwise go to Republicans.
Club for Growth Action, a national political action committee that backs conservative candidates, is the only organization that has registered to raise and spend money to qualify the Green Party for the ballot here. But it told the Commissioner of Political Practices office this week it had ended that effort Feb. 5, well before many of the signatures were gathered or dropped off.
"Club Action is no longer gathering signatures to help the Green Party qualify for the ballot in Montana," chief financial officer and treasurer Adam Rozansky wrote to the commissioner Thursday. "Our vendor acknowledged our request to cease gathering signatures on our behalf on Feb. 5 and stopped work for us on that same date."
Rozansky also wrote that Club for Growth Action "determined that we would not submit any signatures already gathered on our behalf to state officials."
But people have dropped off petition packets in several of Montana's largest counties, with signatures gathered both before and after Feb. 5.
In Lewis and Clark County, a review of the 73 petition packets submitted so far showed a majority have signatures collected after Feb. 5. A group of several people, all reporting addresses out of state, collected the signatures from registered voters. It appeared that only one person from Montana submitted a packet.
Out-of-state petition-gatherers could indicate a paid operation. While the people who gathered petitions must sign an affidavit with their home address, they do not have to provide contact information like a phone number.
Yellowstone County reported receiving 75 petition packets and Missoula County had 80 dropped off earlier this week. Most of the packets in Missoula had signatures gathered as early as January, though some were dated Feb. 12. Gallatin County has also received a large amount of petition packets dropped off Feb. 18.
In Billings, all the signatures were gathered before Feb. 5 and turned in Feb. 18. Many of the same people who turned in signatures in Helena also gathered them in Billings, and all were from out of state.
Once a group has either spent or raised $500 in its effort to qualify a minor party for the ballot, it must register its spending to the Commissioner of Political Practices within five days. Another report with details about how much money the group has raised or spent would be due April 15.
A minor party, specifically the Montana Green Party, played a role in the 2018 election. That year the Montana Green Party, after an effort by a still-unknown financial backer, briefly was certified to put candidates on the ballot before a Helena district court judge removed it. A new law passed in the 2019 Legislature closed financial reporting loopholes that allowed the 2018 financier to hide their identity, and required Club for Growth to file forms earlier this month. Club for Growth has supported Montana candidates before and in this cycle as well, specifically Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale, who is running for U.S. House.
Third-party candidates playing a role in Montana elections is not a new concept: In the 2012 Senate race featuring Tester and former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Libertarian candidate benefited from $500,000 worth of advertising from a group that also supported Tester.
— Billings Gazette reporter Rob Rogers contributed to this story.
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