Tuesday a state district court judge heard arguments over whether the Green Party should be allowed on Montana ballots in November. The Montana Democratic Party brought the suit against the Greens and Secretary of State Corey Stapleton.
MTPR’s capitol reporter Corin Cates-Carney was at the Lewis and Clark County courthouse for the hearing, and spoke with MTPR News Director Eric Whitney.
Eric Whitney: Corin, the judge didn’t decide anything yesterday, right?
Corin Cates-Carney: Right. Most of yesterday’s action was the Democratic party making its case, and bringing brining witnesses, and attorneys for Secretary of State Corey Stapleton and the Green Party cross examining. Judge Kathy Seeley said the hearing will resume next Monday when the Greens and Stapleton will bring their witnesses.
EW: I get it that Democrats are suing to keep Greens off the ballot because they think Green candidates could potentially siphon off voters who might otherwise vote for Democratic candidates, specifically in their races against Congressman Greg Gianforte and for Senator Jon Tester, but why are the suing the Secretary of State?
CCC: That’s because Stapleton, who is an elected Republican, has the final say on the petitions the Green party submitted to the state showing that there’s enough support to put their party on the ballot.
People stand outside grocery stores or a library or stop by the local brewery, wherever, with a clipboard and collect signatures from registered Montana voters. And the Green party gets to put candidates on the November ballot if they get enough, in this case about 5,000 signatures, coming from at least 34 of the state’s legislative districts,
The Greens submitted their petitions, and in March, Stapleton certified they had enough valid signatures, and pretty soon after that the Democrats sent teams to county election offices to check that the signatures were legit. They say not enough were, and now they’re suing to reverse the Secretary of State’s Decision.
EW: How did Montana Democrats argue their case in court?
CCC: The party’s attorney brought in a few witnesses, including a member of the Democratic party, who said they signed the Green party petition.
And the Attorney, Kevin Hamilton, asked them about the day they signed that petition. And Hamilton, cast doubt on whether the person who talked to them and collected their signature was actually the person who, on official documents, claimed to have collected that signature.
EW: And what did the witnesses say?
CCC: Well, one witness said he spoke with a woman who introduced herself by name when offering the petition and the person who is on record for collecting that signature is a man, by a different name.
This wasn’t the case for the vast majority of signatures, but by calling into a question some, party members say about 180 signatures, it could be enough to kick the Green Party off the ballot. .
Democrats also called on their party’s data and analytics director, a woman by the name of Julie Laliberte, who cast more doubt on the validity of the Green Party signatures.
Laliberte testified that she compared signatures from voter registration cards to the signatures that appeared on the Green Party’s petition.
“The voter on the voter registration file that was matched to these signatures was not the correct voter and instead these signatures were of a different voter in the state of Montana," Laliberte testified.
Laliberte is saying is that she doesn’t know the motive of the people who put these signatures on this petition, but some don’t match who they say they are. Democrats point to her testimony as evidence that there were enough inconsistencies and inaccuracies to disqualify the Green Party from the ballot.
EW: And how did the attorneys for the Secretary of State and Green Party Respond to that?
CCC: In a few ways. Emily Jones, the Secretary of State’s Attorney, challenged the Democratic Party’s qualifications and motives.
“Your honor," Jones said, "the Montana Secretary of State objects to the admission of Exhibit Five because it’s manipulation by the Montana Democratic party of the evidence in this case.”
Jones says county election officials have a lot more data and training that helps them determine if a voter signature is good or not , way better than a Democratic party representative’s judgment, which she says is biased because they want that’s best for their party.
EW: And what’s best for their party is to keep Greens off the ballot, so left-leaning voters only have one alternative to Republicans and Libertarians in the House and Senate races.
CCC: That’s the conventional wisdom, which Democrats are resisting. They called their former state party Executive Director Theodore Dick, who said Greens aren’t really a threat.
“They’ve been such a minimized presence in Montana that I don’t think they’ll garner many votes,” Dick testified.
EW: If that’s the case, it seems like maybe there’s not much point in the Democrats suing.
CCC: That what Secretary of State Stapleton’s attorney said in court. But Democrats are making the argument that the suit is about voting fairness and if a party doesn’t have adequate support to be on the ballot, it should be removed.
Judge Seeley said Dick’s testimony wasn’t relevant because he didn’t bring the lawsuit and that’s just his opinion.
EW: So, what’s next? Will this this lawsuit impact Montana’s primary elections coming up on June 5?
CCC: Judge Seeley made no commitment to make a ruling before then. Some primary election ballots are already printed. And all the parties agreed that this issue is about the general election this November. The hearing will reconvene next monday morning. The counsel for Montana Democrats is expected to call one more witness, then the rest of the time will be dedicated for the Secretary of State and Green party to make their case.