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Montana Secretary of State appeals ruling that took Green Party off ballot
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Montana Secretary of State appeals ruling that took Green Party off ballot

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Montana Democratic Party v. Secretary of State

Matthew Gordon, a lawyer representing the Montana Democratic Party, speaks in the courtroom of Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge James Reynolds on July 14 in a case about the Green Party appearing on the ballot this year. Austin James, an attorney for the secretary of state, is seated, while attorney Matt Meade stands at right.

Two last-minute efforts trying to get the Green Party back on the November ballot are playing out in Helena, after a District Court judge on Friday removed the party, citing missteps by the secretary of state.

The clock is ticking on both challenges, as the ballot for the Nov. 3 general election must be certified Aug. 20.

On Friday, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court over Helena District Court Judge James Reynolds' decision that removed the Green Party.

And on Tuesday, two people who were running as Green Party candidates and two people who voted for Green candidates in the June primary filed a lawsuit in federal court in Helena saying the party should be back on the ballot.

Reynolds said Stapleton didn't follow state laws when Stapleton refused to accept some forms submitted by people who wanted to withdraw their signatures for petitions that qualified the Green Party for the ballot.

People requested that their signatures be removed after learning the Montana Republican Party financed the effort to get the Green Party on the ballot. The state Commissioner of Political Practices has found the Montana GOP broke campaign finance laws in qualifying the Green Party by not properly reporting the spending or registering as a committee to qualify a minor party. The state GOP disputes those findings.

The Green Party has said they were not involved in petitioning and had not endorsed any candidates running as Greens this year.

In the separate case Tuesday in U.S. District Court, two Green Party candidates and two Green Party voters say their voting rights would be harmed by tossing the Green party off the ballot.

The two candidates are Royal Davis, who was running for attorney general, and Gary Marbut, who was running for a state Senate seat in Missoula. The voters are Tom and Teresa Harsch, who intended to vote for Green candidates in November. 

"If Secretary Stapleton is prevented from placing on the general election ballot the names of Green Party candidates duly nominated by the voters, the Green Party ballots cast by the Harschs and approximately 800 other Montana voters during the Montana primary election will become nullities and these voters will become disenfranchised," the lawsuit filed by Bozeman lawyer Matthew Monforton reads.

Davis "has spent decades supporting Democratic candidates for governor" and Marbut, who runs the Montana Shooting Sports Association, has run as both a Democrat and Republican before, according to the filing. Marbut tried to intervene in Reynolds' court, but the effort was denied. Campaign finance records show Davis has given to several Democratic campaigns in the past, but also gave $50 to Marbut's state legislative bid as a Republican.

"The buyer's remorse suffered by some of the Green Party petition signers well after the Party qualified for the ballot — and well after many of the Green Party voters had cast ballots — did not justify the state court's cavalier disenfranchisement of plaintiffs and nearly 800 other Green voters months after they had lawfully cast ballots in Montana's primary election," reads the complaint.

The case before Reynolds was filed June 1, the day before the primary, by the Montana Democratic Party and a handful of petition signers who submitted withdrawal forms.

In the case now appealed to the state Supreme Court, Reynolds found the secretary of state inappropriately denied signature withdrawal requests submitted digitally and after March 6. Enough of those requests came in, with help from the Montanan Democratic Party, that the petition no longer met the threshold to get the Greens on the ballot, Reynolds said.

On Tuesday, the Montana Democratic Party criticized the appeal.

"Last week, the court stated unequivocally that the Secretary of State's office violated Montana law as it rushed to certify the Montana GOP's massive fraudulent effort to mislead Montana voters and tamper with our elections. This meritless appeal is nothing more than a desperate effort to save face after Judge Reynolds carefully considered and rejected all of the Secretary's arguments in a 50-page opinion," said party executive director Sandi Luckey in a statement. "Montana Democrats will continue to defend the integrity of our elections."

A timeline for both cases is not clear. The campaign finance violations before the state Commissioner of Political Practices are also still pending.

This is the second time in two years Reynolds has removed the Green Party from the ballot, both on challenges from the Montana Democratic Party.

Green Party candidates can be seen as drawing votes from Democrats, which the Montana Democratic Party pointed out in court makes it harder to get Democrats elected in a state where that can already be a heavy lift. Libertarians, who were already on the ballot, can draw votes from Republicans. In 2012, a liberal group spent $500,000 on ads for a Libertarian candidate in a move some argue helped elect a Democrat to the U.S. Senate by picking off enough votes from the GOP candidate.

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