By Cody McCracken
This November, Montana voters will fill out their ballots for federal, state, and local elections. For nearly all these races, voters will only have two choices – the Democratic Party candidate or the Republican Party candidate. While this seems quite ordinary in our two-party dominated political system, which parties will be on the ballot has been the subject of contentious electioneering and court battles for months.
These disputes stemmed from whether a minor party, the Green Party, would grace Montana’s ballots for the 2020 election. In past elections the Green Party was included on ballots and it appeared they would once again as Green Party candidates initially qualified for most statewide races including the marquee races for the state’s U.S. Senate seat and Governor. However, the strange part of this story begins with the fact that the Montana Green Party was not trying to get on the ballot and fielded no candidates for elections this year. The “Green Party” candidates initially on the ballot had seemingly no connection to the party.
However, that did not stop these candidates from running under the Green Party name. In Montana, as for most states, a candidate of a minor party must collect a certain number of signatures of registered voters before a set deadline to qualify for the ballot. In Montana that requirement is 5% of total votes cast for a successful candidate in the last general election or about 12,000 votes for statewide races.
Starting in late 2019, a signature collecting campaign undertook the effort of qualifying the Green Party for the ballot. Individuals set out across the state to collect signatures from registered voters who believed they were assisting the Green Party find its way onto the ballot. However, this effort had no connection to the actual Montana Green Party. So, who was behind this endeavor? At first it was not clear, but the Montana Democratic Party had their suspicions that GOP operatives were playing the role of Green Party boosters, as they had supported similar efforts during the 2018 election cycle in an attempt to siphon voters away from Democratic Party candidates. These suspicions were confirmed when the Montana Republican Party confirmed that it had put $100,000 towards hiring a private company to gather signatures in support of the Green Party. The Commissioner of Political Practices later found that the operation had failed to properly register as a “minor party qualification committee” in violation of campaign finance law.
In response to this, the Montana Democratic Party launched a campaign of their own to notify individuals who signed petitions of the GOP involvement, and that those signers could send in “withdrawal forms” indicating that they wished for their names to be withdrawn from the qualification petitions. However, the GOP countered this effort when Republican Secretary of State, Corey Stapleton, implemented a new truncated deadline on reception of withdrawal forms that threatened to preserve the Green Party’s place on the ballot. With a shorter window to gather withdrawal forms, it appeared that there would be no chance for the candidates to be removed.
While this maneuver worked initially, placing the Green Party on the June primary ballot, the effort would come crashing down when on August 7th a district court judge ruled that both the altered withdrawal form deadline, and the GOP’s efforts to place the green party on the ballot were unlawful, disqualifying the Green Party from the November ballot.
District Court judge James Reynolds stated, “the actions of the MTGOP and its agents demonstrate that its misrepresentations and failures to disclose in violation of Montana campaign finance law were intentionally designed to create an advantage for the MTGOP at the expense of unwitting signers.”
The Secretary of State then filed an appeal with the Montana Supreme Court, yet they affirmed the lower court’s ruling. In a last-ditch effort, an emergency petition with the Supreme Court of the United States to take up the case, citing the need for ballots to soon be certified as reason for a rushed ruling. However, Justice Elana Kagan issued an order without comment or dissent declining . Again, on September 13th, asked once again to grant an emergency request restoring the Green Party candidates to the ballot, which was once again rejected by the Court the next day.
Additionally, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen rejected a request from two voters and two candidates running under the Green Party banner to put the party on the ballot. The judge declined to grant an injunction given the concurrent Supreme Court case.
This long drama ended last week when the efforts to place the Green Party on the ballot ran out of time. According to Montana law, election administrators must have sent ballots to absent military and overseas voters by September 18th, closing the window on any hope that remained to amend the ballot in the last minute to include the Green Party.
Despite all the ups and downs, two parties, and two parties alone, will grace the ballots for Montana voters this November; an ordinary conclusion to what has been anything but an ordinary past year of political gamesmanship and legal battles.