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Hijack of Montana Green Party Ballot Line

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In 2018, members of the Montana Green Party were surprised by news that people they didn’t know were petitioning to put Green Party candidates on the state ballot. Then it happened again in 2020, and although the real Montana Green Party publicly disavowed the effort, it was powerless to stop it.

As it turned out, the bogus Green campaigns and petition drives were organized by Republican-linked operatives, leading to a lengthy scandal and court battle in 2020 detailed by the independent Montana Free Press in an article titled “How Montana’s Green Party found itself at the center of a political circus. Again.”

The Montana Green Party made a public statement via Facebook on February 12th, 2020 disavowing the petition drives and associated campaigns, writing, “We have been receiving notice that there are people falsely collecting information on behalf of the Green Party… Keep in mind that for the last few years there are individuals who seek nothing more than to smear our name and mission by using very rude and impractical methods, in these cases impersonation to degrade our cause.”

Yet the fact that the Montana Green Party had nothing to do with the effort, and indeed denounced it publicly as a fraud, hasn’t stopped detractors from pointing to headlines like “MT GOP financed Green Party ballot qualification in Montana” to argue that the Green Party willingly takes money from, or otherwise conspires with, Republican operatives.

These types of dirty tricks have a long history, and the Greens are far from the only party to have their ballot line hijacked or attract unwanted “support” from political tricksters. In fact, the Montana Free Press story notes “a political action committee supporting [Montana Democrat] Sen. Jon Tester’s re-election bid put $500,000 toward a campaign ad for the Libertarian candidate just days before the November election.”

In New York, where fusion allows candidates to run on multiple party lines, the Rensselaer County GOP led a 2021 effort to register conservative voters in the Working Families Party, which typically endorses Democrats, in order to win the Working Families line for GOP candidates. In 2014, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo created a new Women’s Equality Party, leading to widespread charges he was trying to confuse voters seeking to vote for the Working Families Party, based on the similarity of the ballot abbreviations WEP and WFP. In Minnesota, media investigations have found that 2020 candidates for the Legal Marijuana Now Party and the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis Party were recruited by Republican operatives.

Under current law, all these ballot shenanigans are legal. For example, while new campaign finance disclosure laws in Montana revealed how Republicans were funneling money through a group called “Montanans for Conservation” to fund their bogus Green petition drives, neither the actual Green Party nor anyone else could stop them from doing it.

The root of the problem is the first-past-the-post election system (in which the highest fraction of the vote wins even if it’s less than a majority), which tends both to perpetuate a two-party system and to incentivize those parties to try to divert voters who otherwise would support their main established rival into smaller parties. Both Democrats and Republicans have frequently engaged in these kinds of tricks, and if they aren’t hijacking the ballot lines of Greens or Libertarians, they can do it to lesser-known parties like Legal Marijuana Now or invent new parties like the Women’s Equality Party. It’s debatable how much these ploys actually work as intended, but what’s clear is that they erode voters’ already low level of trust in politics, and damage the reputations of the parties whose ballot lines are stolen and used for nefarious purposes.

The real solution to the problem of ballot hijacking is to reform our elections, namely by replacing first-past-the-post voting with ranked-choice voting. Under ranked-choice voting, if a voter’s first choice doesn’t win, their vote can still count for their second choice, which eliminates the “vote-splitting” or “spoiler” effect that ballot hijackers seek to exploit. Ranked-choice voting has many benefits leading to its adoption in a growing number of municipalities and states, and we can add to the list that it would put an end to the reprehensible practice of ballot hijacking.

David Schwab

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