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 Tuesday’s 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 week 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.”
Montana District Court Judge Jim Reynolds gave the parties until Friday to submit additional discovery, which means it’s unlikely that the case will be decided before Tuesday’s primary.
The Greens have six candidates on the primary ballot, although the party has denounced one legislative candidate, John Gibney, for making “bigoted comments” about Muslim immigrants at a 2016 rally in Missoula.
Whether the party’s candidates are sufficiently Green is not for the Democrats to decide, said Ms. Breck, who left the Democratic Party after the 2016 presidential primary.
“We are actively trying to make sure that our candidates profess our ideals, but it’s not the Democratic Party’s place to determine who those people are and who they’re not,” she said. “That’s our responsibility, not theirs.”