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US high court denies bid to restore Greens on Montana ballot

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday denied an attempt by the Montana secretary of state to restore Green Party candidates to the November ballot — striking a blow to a Republican-bankrolled effort that threatened to siphon votes from Democratic candidates.

The ruling came less than a week after the state Supreme Court upheld an Aug. 7 ruling by district Judge James Reynolds that granted the requests of more than 560 people to remove their names from ballot petitions after they learned the Republican Party had bankrolled the $100,000 signature-gathering effort and violated finance laws by not reporting the spending.

Republican Secretary of State Corey Stapleton filed a motion Monday to halt the state Supreme Court order. It was denied by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. Kagan’s decision makes it increasingly likely the Green Party will remain off the ballot. Election administrators are required to start sending printed ballots to absent military and overseas voters by Sept. 18.

Stapleton did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment. The certification of the November ballot, sent to counties last Thursday, included an asterisk saying Stapleton and others es were challenging the state Supreme Court decision. Stapleton can still file an appeal on the state Supreme Court’s decision, which could impact future signature-gathering efforts.

Green Party candidates are believed to draw votes away from Democratic candidates. Stapleton alleged the Green Party’s removal was aimed at eliminating political competition for Democrats. Not having Green Party candidates could potentially impact several high-stakes races on the ballot this November, including Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock challenge of Republican Sen. Steve Daines. Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney is facing off against Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte in the race for governor. With tens of millions of dollars pouring in, both races are expected to be competitive, and the two parties are seeking any edge possible.

The U.S. Supreme Court filing came after the state Supreme Court issued an expedited ruling on Aug. 19 upholding the ruling from Reynolds that granted the requests of over 560 people to remove their names from petitions after they learned the Montana Green Party did not support the effort.

Stapleton rejected those requests, saying they were filed after a deadline. Reynolds granted the signature-removal requests, saying there was no such deadline in state law. The ruling left the Green Party without enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

The Green Party never endorsed any of the Green candidates who ran in numerous statewide races, including the U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor, and attorney general races. State senate candidate Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, ran this year as a Green candidate after running for state house as a Republican in 2012 and as an independent in 2014.

Earlier this month, Marbut was joined by Royal Davis, a Helena-based attorney who ran as a Green candidate for attorney general, in filing a complaint at the U.S. District Court in Helena asking the court to overturn Reynolds’ ruling. They argued the ruling disenfranchised those who voted for Green Party candidates in the primary election.

The Democratic Party and four people who signed Green Party petitions had sued after Stapleton refused requests to remove signatures from the petitions. “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,” Sandi Luckey, the Montana Democratic Party Executive Director, said in a statement on Tuesday, calling Stapleton’s actions “embarrassingly partisan.”

Stapleton is not seeking re-election after making an unsuccessful bid in the June primary for the Republican nomination for the U.S. House seat that is being vacated by Gianforte. Reynolds’ decision marks the second time in two years that he removed Green Party candidates from the ballot.

In 2018, in another complaint filed by the Montana Democratic Party, he invalidated signatures that didn’t match those on file with counties and invalidated 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. The 2019 Legislature passed a law requiring timely reporting of spending on minor party ballot-qualification efforts.