Montana Democratic Party Sues to Stop Republican Voter Challenges

A pair of Missoula County voters and the Montana Democratic Party filed suit (PDF) in federal court Monday morning to halt broad Republican challenges of newly registered voters, and to keep harshly worded letters about the challenges from being mailed to those challenged voters.

State Republicans challenged more than 6,000 voters last week in a handful of Democratic counties and Democratic-leaning areas. The challenges were made using a private forwarding-address service and notarized by Republican Party employees, the lawsuit alleges.

“I’m a challengee in Silver Bow County!” said Democratic Party official Art Noonan. He’s also a state representative from Butte. (The progressive nonprofit Forward Montana, has a new Web site where you can check to see if your registration has been challenged.)

The lawsuit alleges the challenge, made by four officials working for the Montana Republican Party, is meant to intimidate voters and suppress turnout on the eve of a hotly contested election, said Noonan.

“This is no small coincidence that this was done just before the absentee ballots went out,” Noonan said. “The Republican strategy is to selectively register your voters and suppress the opposition.”

The challenges were in six counties that tend to vote Democratic or that have distinct Democratic districts: Deer Lodge, Glacier, Hill, Lewis and Clark, Missoula and Silver Bow.

Republicans said the challenges were meant to prevent voter fraud.

Noonan was particularly incensed that some voters have received a letter saying their registration received a rejected challenge and yet still asking them to “please address this challenge attempt immediately in order to keep from having voting problems in this upcoming election.” (The quotation comes from a letter sent to some voters in Hill County in north-central Montana.)

Aside from the Montana Democratic Party, the suit was filed by Joseph Breitenbach and Cynthia Anne Green of Missoula. The named defendants are Montana Republican Party director Jake Eaton and employee Max Hunsaker, as well as Secretary of State Brad Johnson, a Republican.

The suit alleges that Johnson’s office didn’t follow federal law in handling the challenges. As a result, voters in Hill County, for instance, are being treated differently than voters in other counties, which is illegal, the suit alleges. State Republicans also targeted voters who tend to vote Democratic, which is also illegal, the suit says.

(This article first ran on Oct. 6, 2008.)

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