HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Two Green Party candidates who have filed to run for seats in the Montana House can appear on the ballot this year as part of a settlement in a long-running legal case, a federal judge said this week.
The Montana Green Party in 2018 challenged the constitutionality of the state law that required minor parties to gather signatures equal to at least 5% of the total votes cast for the winner in the most recent gubernatorial election in at least 34 of 100 state House districts.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in November that setting signature requirements based on how many people in the district voted for the winning governor could lead to petition signatures being valued differently in districts with similar populations.
For the 2018 election, there were 21 House districts in which a minor party would have had to gather between 55 and 99 signatures, another 53 districts required between 100 and 140 signatures, and 26 required the maximum of 150 signatures, court records said. Minor parties needed at least 5,000 total signatures from across the districts to qualify.
Because the Montana Legislature will not be able to change the law until it meets again in 2023, Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen and the Montana Green Party agreed to a settlement that allows Green Party candidates to appear on the 2022 ballot. The state also must pay nearly $70,000 for the plaintiffs' attorneys fees. U.S. District Judge Brian Morris approved the settlement on Wednesday.
Two Green Party candidates, including plaintiff Steve Kelly, have filed to run for the state House. Kelly is running in a district west of Bozeman, while Gary Marbut, head of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, filed as in a district south of Missoula, the Montana State News Bureau reported.
In 2018 and 2020 outside groups, not the Montana Green Party, gathered signatures to qualify the party for the ballot. The Montana Democratic Party successfully challenged the Green Party qualifications both years — in 2018 over whether some signatures were valid and in 2020 when people asked to have their signatures removed from petitions after it was learned the effort was bankrolled by the Montana Republican Party.
It is still not known who paid for the 2018 signature gathering effort. The Montana Republican Party has said it was not them.
In 2019, the Montana Legislature passed a law requiring professional signature gatherers to disclose who was paying them. In 2021, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law — requested by Jacobsen — to allow any elector to start a petition to qualify a minor party for the ballot, meaning that person does not need to be a member of the minor party.
That change followed a 2020 ruling by the Montana Supreme Court that rejected the Republican-backed effort to qualify Montana Green Party candidates for the November 2020 ballot.
“Quite simply an unauthorized political party or entity cannot present a petition to require a different political party to put the different political party’s candidates on the ballot,” Justice Ingrid Gustafson wrote in the court’s majority opinion.