HELENA - A state judge has ordered Montana Green Party candidates removed from the November ballot, ruling that certain voter signatures on petitions used to certify the party are invalid.
In a ruling late Monday, District Judge James Reynolds of Helena said that 87 of the 7,386 signatures used to certify the Green Party in March aren’t valid – and that removing those signatures means the party fell short of geographic-distribution minimums required by law.
Reynolds’ ruling means that five Green Party candidates will be removed from the November ballot: U.S. Senate candidate Steve Kelly, U.S. House candidate Doug Campbell, and legislative candidates from Missoula, Hamilton and Heart Butte.
Reynolds ruled on a lawsuit filed this April by the Montana Democratic Party and three Democratic activists or office-holders.
Nancy Keenan, executive director of the party, said in a statement Monday night that the ruling “is a win for Montanans against the tactics of out-of-state, Republican dark-money groups that are blatantly trying to interfere in Montana’s democracy.”
Democratic Party officials alleged that a Nevada-based group with ties to conservative causes had funded and helped coordinate the Green Party’s petition drive to qualify for the ballot, in an effort to harm Democratic candidates on the ballot in Montana.
Montana Green Party officials denied the charge, and late Monday denounced the ruling and indicated they will appeal it to the Montana Supreme Court.
“I look forward to this argument for the people being reheard on appeal, and this seemingly unconstitutional judgment overturned,” said Campbell, the Green Party U.S. House candidate.
To qualify for the ballot, the Green Party had to submit the signatures of at least 5,000 Montana voters statewide and meet minimum signature amounts in at least 34 state House districts.
On the last day for candidates to file this year – March 12 – Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s office certified the party, saying it had submitted 7,386 valid signatures and met the minimum in 38 House districts. The Green Party candidates all filed that day to run.
But Democratic Party activists scoured the signatures that had been submitted, and identified about 200 they claimed were invalid – enough to make the Green Party miss the minimums in several House districts.
The party and party officials filed suit April 2, to invalidate those signatures to remove the party from the ballot.
Reynolds ruled Monday that 87 of the signatures are invalid, for a variety of reasons, including that the signature-gatherer hadn’t personally witnessed the signings, and that the voter signature on the petition didn’t match the handwritten signature on registered voter files.
With those signatures invalidated, the Green Party met the minimums in only 30 state House districts, rather than the required 34.
“We are extremely disappointed in Judge Reynolds’ decision,” said Danielle Patrick, state coordinator for the Green Party. “The court has determined that the biased opinions of paid Democratic operatives supersede those of trained election officials.”