Judge lowers bar to qualify for Montana special elections
By MATT VOLZ
Jul. 25, 2017
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A judge has lowered the bar for independent and third-party candidates to qualify for future Montana special elections, after three men claimed the state's requirements unconstitutionally kept them off the ballot in the state's special congressional election in May.
U.S. District Judge Brian Morris in earlier rulings agreed with Thomas Breck of the Green Party and independents Steve Kelly and Doug Campbell that the state's signature requirements were a severe burden to their right to access the ballot in a shortened special election season.
On Monday, Morris permanently blocked state election officials from enforcing a 2015 law that requires independent candidates to collect signatures from 5 percent of the voters in the most recent election. The three men had five days in which to gather 14,268 signatures to qualify for the May 25 ballot.
Instead, Morris set a new standard for the state for future special elections. Election officials can require no more than 80 signatures per day from when a special election is called to the deadline for submitting candidate petitions with the secretary of state's office.
The ruling is the result of an agreement between the attorneys for the three candidates and Secretary of State Corey Stapleton. State lawmakers can nullify the ruling by amending the state's ballot access laws.
Morris has used that 80-signature-per-day rate previously in this case. In April, he issued an order saying the three candidates only needed 400 signatures over the five days they had in March to qualify for the ballot.
But the judge did not give the men any additional time to gather signatures. None had enough to qualify even by the lower standard and they were all left off the May 25 ballot.
Republican Greg Gianforte won the election to serve the remainder of former U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke's term.
Morris also awarded Breck, Kelly and Campbell $56,000 in costs and fees.