The Montana Democratic Party on Monday filed a complaint with the state's elections watchdog asking him to figure out who is behind a likely paid effort to qualify the Montana Green Party for the ballot this year.
Starting in January, signature-gatherers popped up in some of Montana's bigger cities asking people to sign petitions to get the Greens on the ballot. Parties automatically qualify to be on the ballot if one of their candidates for a statewide office meets a threshold of votes in either of the prior two elections.
In Montana, that means Libertarians were automatically qualified this year, while the Greens needed petitions to get on. But the Montana Green Party made very clear in a Facebook post earlier this year that it was not behind the effort, had no plans to try to qualify in 2020 and did not intend to run any candidates.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton qualified the Green Party for the ballot March 6 after more than 11,000 signatures were submitted. Only one group, the conservative Club for Growth Action political action committee, had filed to do the work of qualifying a minor party for the ballot, but that organization told Lee Newspapers and the state Commissioner of Political Practices, Jeff Mangan, it was stopping its efforts and did not plan to submit signatures.
That means it has remained a mystery who was behind the effort, but now the Montana Democratic Party is asking the commissioner to investigate and find out.
Their complaint points out that any group that collects or spends more than $500 to qualify a minor party must register with the commissioner's office. That's because of a new law passed in the 2019 legislative session. Some petition-gatherers identified the organization that hired them to do the work, Advanced Micro-Targeting, though it's not clear who contracted with AMT, which does signature-gathering and other political efforts all around the country. Democrats are asking Mangan to find that out.
"Those funding this effort to place the Green Party on the primary ballot remain anonymous despite the recent changes enacted by the Montana legislature to achieve disclosure of this information," the Democrats' complaint reads. They ask that Mangan impose civil penalties for failing to comply with campaign finance disclosure laws.
Mangan does not typically respond to press inquiries about complaints he is in the process of deciding whether to accept or actively investigating.
In 2018, another mystery group was behind an effort that also qualified the Green Party for the ballot, though a Helena judge later took them off after the Montana Democratic Party filed a lawsuit questioning the validity of some of the signatures used to qualify the Greens.
Green Party candidates are seen as a threat to Democrats running for office because of their ability to siphon off votes, while Libertarian candidates can been seen as taking votes away from Republicans. Third-party candidates playing a role in Montana elections is not a new concept: In the 2012 Senate race featuring Tester and former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Libertarian candidate benefited from $500,000 worth of advertising from a group that also supported Tester.
This cycle there are two Green Party candidates running in the U.S. Senate race, which is expected to see a matchup of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, against incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines. The Libertarian candidate in that race, Eric Fulton, who had previously served as chair of the Gallatin County Young Republicans and ran as a Republican in a legislative race, dropped out on the filing deadline. Fulton did not return calls or emails seeking comment about why he left the race.
Sid Daoud, chair of the Montana Libertarian Party, said in a letter posted to Facebook Sunday he would call a special meeting of the Montana Libertarian Party State Central Committee to fill that seat. Daoud said in his letter "our research into the relevant Montana Code seems to indicate that we should be able to select a replacement" before March 18.
"It has been suggested in the media that the candidate may have been working in concert with the Republican party and that, perhaps, had never intended to run, but only sought to dissuade other legitimate Libertarian candidates from doing so. Whether these accusations are founded, we have now arrived at this point and the actions we must take are clear," Daoud's letter reads.
The meeting will be held online Tuesday at 7 p.m.
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