Mon­tana Democrats file suit to oust Green Party from bal­lot

Fear spoiler for Tester’s Se­nate seat

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY VA­LERIE RICHARD­SON

Sen. Jon Tester of Mon­tana was al­ready fac­ing a tough re-elec­tion bat­tle in a state that Don­ald Trump won by a land­slide — and then the Green Party made the Demo­crat’s job that much tougher by qual­i­fy­ing for the bal­lot.

Now the Mon­tana Demo­cratic Party is scram­bling to oust the Greens. It has asked a judge to de­cer­tify the left-wing party by declar­ing 180 pe­ti­tion sig­na­tures in­valid for rea­sons such as bad hand­writ­ing, use of ini­tials in­stead of full names and fail­ure to write in cur­sive.

The law­suit, filed April, 2 has the Greens see­ing red. They ac­cuse state Democrats of try­ing to dis­en­fran­chise vot­ers in a po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated at­tack.

“They’re scared,” said Danielle Breck, Mon­tana Green Party co­or­di­na­tor. “There seems to be this be­lief that we’re go­ing to spoil the race, par­tic­u­larly [for] Jon Tester. His seat is at risk, and they’re afraid we’re go­ing to siphon votes from them.”

Democrats have rea­son to be ner­vous. Mr. Tester, a two-term in­cum­bent, is re­garded as one of the Se­nate’s most vul­ner­a­ble Democrats, try­ing to defy the odds in a state that Mr. Trump car­ried by 20 per­cent­age points in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Four Repub­li­cans are run­ning to chal­lenge Mr. Tester in the pri­mary, but polls show the race has in­creas­ingly be­come a con­test be­tween state au­di­tor Matt Rosendale and for­mer Judge Rus­sell Fagg, who stepped in af­ter Interior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke took a pass.

A rangy farmer known for his crew cut, Mr. Tester has won nar­row vic­to­ries by po­si­tion­ing him­self as a cen­trist in or­der to pick up Re­pub­li­can votes. That strat­egy may be tougher to pull off in an elec­tion sea­son when lib­er­als are in­creas­ingly flout­ing Demo­cratic Party fa­vorites to side with non­estab­lish­ment can­di­dates.

The Green Party has two Se­nate con­tenders on the pri­mary bal­lot: Tim Adams, a for­mer state Re­pub­li­can State Cen­tral Com­mit­tee staffer, and Steve Kelly, the 2002 Demo­cratic nominee for Mon­tana’s House seat.

Mr. Kelly, who won the Green Party’s Se­nate en­dorse­ment at its con­ven­tion, said “there’s a whole huge group of peo­ple” in Mon­tana will­ing to de­vi­ate from the Demo­cratic Party script.

“The best way to de­scribe it is that Bernie [San­ders] won Mon­tana in 2016,” Mr. Kelly said. “So read it and weep if we’re on the bal­lot.”

Mon­tana Democrats are fight­ing to keep that from hap­pen­ing. In their law­suit, filed shortly af­ter Sec­re­tary of State Corey Sta­ple­ton approved the Green Party’s pe­ti­tion in March, Democrats ar­gued that 180 of the sig­na­tures sub­mit­ted were in­valid.

To qual­ify for the bal­lot, a party must sub­mit at least 5,000 valid sig­na­tures, in­clud­ing 55 to 150 from at least 34 of the state’s House leg­isla­tive dis­tricts.

The Greens sub­mit­ted more than 10,000 sig­na­tures from 38 dis­tricts and county clerks cer­ti­fied 7,386 of those, but the Democrats’ mo­tion claims they in­clude a num­ber of mis­takes.

The law­suit ar­gues that some of those who signed printed their names in­stead of us­ing cur­sive, used ab­bre­vi­a­tions and ini­tials, wrote only a first or last name, spelled their names dif­fer­ently or wrote in il­leg­i­ble “chicken scratch.”

Ac­cord­ing to the sec­re­tary of state’s pe­ti­tion form, vot­ers must sign their names “in sub­stan­tially the same man­ner as on the per­son’s voter reg­is­tra­tion card or the sig­na­ture will not be counted.”

“Thus, the Pe­ti­tion is in­valid and does not qual­ify the Green Party to be on the pri­mary bal­lot,” said the law­suit.

Dur­ing the two-day court hear­ing last month in He­lena, Democrats pro­duced ex­hibits com­par­ing bal­lot sig­na­tures against those on file with the coun­ties, and the clerks from two of the three coun­ties in ques­tion de­fended their cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­ce­dures.

“The county clerks are trained in hand­writ­ing anal­y­sis. They do hun­dreds of thou­sands of sig­na­tures a year be­cause these are the same peo­ple who check the mail-in bal­lot,” said Ms. Breck. “They know what they’re do­ing. We had two of the three coun­ties come and tes­tify at the trial about what they’ve done, and they’re con­fi­dent that their sig­na­ture count was good.”

Democrats also have raised the is­sue of po­lit­i­cal chi­canery. They say a pro­fes­sional out-of-state firm gath­ered sig­na­tures without re­port­ing any pay­ments on cam­paign dis­clo­sure forms. The Green Party in­sists it was un­aware of any paid ef­forts.

In ad­di­tion, Mr. Adams has been ac­cused of be­ing a Re­pub­li­can plant in­tended to draw votes from Mr. Tester “rather than to ad­vance the Green Party’s stated prin­ci­ples and val­ues,” the mo­tion said.

Ms. Breck, how­ever, ar­gued that Mr. Adams worked for the Re­pub­li­can Party only briefly and has run for of­fice as a Lib­er­tar­ian, in ad­di­tion to be­ing ac­tive in LGBT and marijuana le­gal­iza­tion ad­vo­cacy ef­forts.

“Yes, he worked for six months as an an­a­lyst for the GOP here in Mon­tana, but he’s also given lots of do­na­tions to Demo­cratic can­di­dates,” she said. “I read him as a po­lit­i­cally con­scious in­di­vid­ual who’s look­ing for a home.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sen. Jon Tester of Mon­tana is re­garded as one of the Se­nate’s most vul­ner­a­ble Democrats. The two-term in­cum­bent is try­ing to defy the odds in a state that Don­ald Trump car­ried.

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