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Judge hears arguments in Dems’ lawsuit to toss MT Green Party from the ballot

Posted at 4:44 PM, Apr 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-24 18:44:30-04

Witnesses for the state Democratic Party presented evidence Tuesday that the party says should disqualify certain signatures used to place the Green Party on the 2018 ballot in Montana – enough to remove the Greens from the ballot.

But Green Party members said they believe the signatures are legitimate, and that voters shouldn’t be denied the choice of another party.

“Don’t suppress the vote; let the people decide,” Green Party U.S. Senate candidate Steve Kelly of Bozeman told MTN News Tuesday. “A lot of this is political, but it’s starting to edge into people’s fundamental rights to associate with a party that’s just getting started. If we become a problem for the Democrats down the road, that’s just too bad.”

A half-dozen Green Party candidates are currently on the ballot, including three running for U.S. House and U.S. Senate.

The Montana Democratic Party and three of its supporters filed suit earlier this month, asking state District Judge Kathy Seeley to declare invalid at least 180 signatures used to qualify the Green Party for the ballot.

If those signatures are invalidated, the Green Party will fall short of the required minimum number of signatures in at least 34 state House districts.

The suit also asked Seeley to remove the party from the ballot, if she agrees that the signatures in question are not valid.

Seeley held a hearing on the case Tuesday afternoon in Helena and will rule later on the case.

Ballots for the June 5 primary election have already been printed, including ballots listing the Green Party candidates. The Greens have a contested primary in the U.S. Senate race, between Kelly and Tim Adams of Three Forks.

Green Party candidates and officials attended Tuesday’s hearing, including state coordinator Danielle Breck of Missoula, who wore a bright green sweater in court.

Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, a Republican and a defendant in the case, also attended, as did Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Nancy Keenan.

Julie LaLiberte, a data analyst for the Democratic Party, testified that the questioned signatures did not match up with signatures on a statewide voter list at the secretary of state’s office, for various reasons.

For example, some of the signatures turned in on Green Party petitions were “illegible,” while the signature of the same voter on the voter list was “clearly articulated, or vice-versa,” she said.

Dana Toole of Helena, who said she signed a Green Party petition in February, also testified that the person who collected her signature apparently was not the same person who verified that he had taken her signature – which is required by state law.

To qualify for the ballot, the Green Party had to submit petitions by March 5 with the signatures of at least 5,000 registered voters statewide and a minimum amount in at least 34 state House districts.

That district minimum is at least 5 percent of votes cast in the district for the winning gubernatorial candidate 2016 or 150 – whichever is less.

Stapleton said in March that the Green Party submitted 7,386 valid signatures statewide and met or surpassed the minimum number of signatures in 38 House districts.

The lawsuit alleges that when 180 signatures that Democrats found to be invalid are removed, the Green Party met the district minimums in only 30 House districts, and therefore did not qualify for the 2018 ballot.

Kelly, who attended the hearing, said Green Party candidates are “a hard thing to button-hole or put in a box,” but that they usually are pro-environmental protection and pro-civil rights.

“I think there are a lot of people who are just interested in voting for someone who’s different than the usual, same-old, same-old,” he said.