Supreme Court Rejects Republican Effort to Restore Green Party Candidates on Montana Ballot

Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton is flanked by his elections director Dana Corson, right, and chief of staff Christi Jacobsen as they wait to testify before a legislative committee in Helena, Mont., in 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Volz,File)

(CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday denied a request by the Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton to place Green Party candidates back on state ballots this November, a move some argued would benefit Republicans by drawing votes away from Democrats.

The decision follows an Aug. 19 ruling by the Montana Supreme Court upholding a state district court judge’s decision to strike Green Party candidates from the ballot due to a signature-gathering scandal. More than 560 people asked for their names to be removed from ballot petitions after they learned the Republican Party funded the $100,000 signature-gathering effort and failed to disclose the spending in violation of campaign finance laws.

Stapleton, a Republican, filed an emergency motion Monday to halt the state Supreme Court’s order. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan denied the request on Tuesday.

Kagan’s decision makes it even more likely that Green Party candidates will stay off the ballot. State election officials are required to start sending printed ballots to absent military and overseas voters by Sept. 18.

Stapleton argued in his motion for a stay that tossing Green Party candidates from the ballot would throw the state’s elections “into chaos” and effectively void thousands of votes cast in favor of Green Party candidates during the state’s June 2 primary.

“Changing the rules for qualifying minor parties to hold their election primaries late in the election cycle at the request of a major party, or anyone else for that matter, is fundamentally unfair, especially when the Secretary of State followed established election laws and adopted rules,” attorneys for Stapleton’s office wrote in the emergency motion.

The Montana Democratic Party sued Stapleton over his refusal to honor the requests of 560 people that asked to be removed from the petitions to get candidates’ names on the ballot after they learned the Montana Green Party never supported the effort.

Stapleton rejected those requests, saying they were filed after a deadline.

Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge James Reynolds granted the signature-removal requests in an Aug. 7 decision, saying there was no such deadline in state law. The Montana Supreme Court upheld Reynolds’ ruling less than two weeks later. The ruling left the Green Party without enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

With a more progressive policy platform, it is widely believed that Green Party candidates tend to draw votes away from Democratic candidates. Stapleton claimed the Green Party’s removal was intended to remove political competition for Democrats.

Striking Green Party candidates from the ballot could impact several high-stakes races in Montana this November, including a challenge by Democratic Governor Steve Bullock against Republican Senator Steve Daines.

Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney is facing Republican Representative Greg Gianforte in the race for governor. 

With tens of millions of dollars flowing in, both races are expected to be competitive, and the two parties are seeking every opportunity for an advantage.

The Green Party did not endorse any Green Party candidates who ran in numerous statewide races, including U.S. Senate, U.S. House, gubernatorial, and attorney general races.

In a statement Tuesday, Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Sandi Luckey applauded the Supreme Court’s decision to reject Stapleton’s “embarrassingly partisan behavior” and “uphold the integrity of Montana elections.”

“Today the United States Supreme Court dealt the latest blow to the Montana GOP’s massive fraudulent effort to mislead Montana voters and tamper with our elections,” Luckey said.

Stapleton, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, is not seeking reelection after he failed in a June 2 primary to secure the Republican nomination for the U.S. House seat being vacated by Gianforte.

Two Green Party candidates, state house candidate Gary Marbut and state attorney general candidate Royal Davis, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Helena on Aug. 11 seeking to overturn Reynolds’ decision. They argued the ruling disenfranchised those who voted for Green Party candidates in the primary election. 

“The order does not cite any Montana statute authorizing the withdrawal of signatures from a party-qualification petition, let alone one authorizing withdrawal after voters had begun casting ballots for the party,” the two former candidates complained in their 21-page lawsuit.

This was the second time in two years that Reynolds removed Green Party candidates from the ballot.

In 2018, in another complaint brought by the state Democratic Party, he invalidated signatures that didn’t match county records and voided others that were submitted by people who did not collect the signatures.

It was never determined who was behind the 2018 effort to get Green Party candidates on the Montana ballot. But the Green Party of Montana said it was not behind the efforts in 2018 or 2020.

In 2019, the Montana Legislature passed a law requiring timely reporting of spending on minor party ballot-qualification efforts.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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