Court fight leads to Dems taking over Montana House

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HELENA, Mont. - A post-election legal challenge by a Blackfeet woman
upended a Montana House of Representatives race and has forced Republicans
to cede control of the chamber to Democrats.

"I thought they were trying to steal the election," said Ronan resident
Anita Big Spring, who filed a lawsuit alleging that local officials
improperly tallied seven ballots that led to a narrow GOP House majority.
"I knew I did the right thing."

The contested race, centered in Lake County on the Flathead Reservation,
featured Democrat Jeanne Windham running against Republican Jack Cross and
ultra-right Constitution Party member Rick Jore, who formerly served three
terms in the House as a Republican.

Tabulation of regular and provisional ballots after the Nov. 2 general
election indicated that Jore had received 1,559 votes, Windham got 1,557
votes, and Cross came in third with 1,108 votes.

Provisional ballots are a new election phenomenon created by the 2002 Help
America Vote Act. The controversial law, which stemmed from the 2000
presidential recount fiasco, allows some voters to cast ballots even if
registration problems surface at the polls or the voter doesn't present an
approved form of identification.

Jore's apparent win as a third-party candidate meant that Republicans kept
more than a decade's worth of control over the Montana House, this time by
a slim 50 - 49 - 1 margin.

Elsewhere, however, Republicans suffered big losses. For the first time
since 1984, Montana voters elected a Democratic governor - Brian Schweitzer
- and for the first time since 1993, Democrats were handed the reins in the
state Senate, where they now hold a 27 - 23 advantage.

But the Montana Democratic victory story doesn't end there.

Because of the close race and questions about the integrity of some
ballots, Windham called for a recount in her House District 12 race. The
hand recount revealed that Windham and Jore were actually tied, with each
drawing 1,559 votes. Under state law, that meant lame duck Republican Gov.
Judy Martz would appoint the winner.

Windham, however, argued that some ballots in the Jore column were
improperly counted because they had various pencil marks by the names of
both Jore and Cross, meaning that voter intent could not be exactly
determined.

Windham and Helena attorney Mike Meloy requested and received a temporary
restraining order in Helena's state district court to halt Martz's
selection of a winner. They also asked the Montana Supreme Court to
immediately rule on the legality of the contested ballots.

Republican leaders went ballistic, alleging that Windham's moves were
merely stalling tactics to allow Democrat Schweitzer to be sworn into
office and pick Windham for the seat. They also accused Democrats of trying
to "steal" the election.

The high court quickly voted 4 - 3 not to hear the case, arguing that there
were still other avenues to pursue. Windham's restraining order also
expired, with the judge in the case explaining that she didn't see
irreparable harm being fomented if Martz moved ahead.

Meanwhile, Big Spring, in concert with Windham and other Democratic
officials, filed suit against Jore back in Lake County. Big Spring, also
represented by Meloy, argued in the high-profile case that the seven
ballots were "mismarked" and therefore should be deemed invalid.

Before Big Spring's case could be decided, however, Martz quickly selected
Jore to fill the seat. Republicans, tentatively holding the 50 - 49 edge,
elected a House speaker and began doling out committee assignments.

Then Lake County District Court Judge Kim Christopher, a former Republican
prosecuting attorney, ruled against Big Spring by stating she would not
declare that any of the seven ballots were spoiled.

Big Spring, a community activist and former election judge and poll watcher
who serves as administrative assistant to Salish Kootenai College President
Joe McDonald, immediately appealed the decision to the Montana Supreme
Court.

After examining the ballots, the high court on Dec. 28 voted 6 - 1 to throw
out "one or more of the seven ballots at issue," giving first place to
Windham, pushing Jore out of his seat, and giving Democrats and Republicans
a 50 - 50 tied House. State law dictates that leadership of a tied chamber
goes to the party of the current governor, now a Democrat.

But Republicans sought revenge. Organizing quietly behind the scenes, they
engineered the defeat of Missoula Rep. Dave Wanzenried, the Democratic
caucus candidate for speaker, in favor of a more conservative Democrat,
Rep. Gary Matthews of Miles City.

The coup occurred when Republicans gained three Democratic votes -
including Matthews' - during the Jan. 3 selection of leadership posts. GOP
leaders also are taking aim at the Supreme Court, which they see as
left-leaning.

"You've got seven people up there who think they're God's gift to
creation," Rep. John Sinrud, R-Bozeman, said at a Jan. 3 caucus meeting.
"It's time to stand up to the Supreme Court and say enough is enough."

Added Rep. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman: "We're not going to be governed by a
bunch of despots in black robes."

GOP proposals to make high court candidates run with political
affiliations, cut their pay, instate harsh campaign spending caps on court
races, allow the governor and the Legislature to overrule court opinions,
limiting the time justices can serve and allowing non-lawyers to serve on
the bench are all on the table.

Big Spring, 46, said she thinks the inflamed lawmakers should cool down the
rhetoric and focus on working together for the good of all Montanans.

"I kind of call this the good fight, because I think something good will
come out of it," she said in a telephone interview. "I'm just one of those
lower-class working people, and I vote. What the [election] board did was
wrong. My dad said, 'If you believe in something, fight for it.' That's
always kind of been in my blood. We all knew those ballots were wrong. In
this point in my life I was strong enough to [challenge them in court]."

Big Spring, who has worked on Flathead Reservation voter-registration
drives and Get Out The Vote campaigns since 1996, said emotional support
from friends helped bolster her courage to take on an entrenched - and
often bigoted - election bureaucracy. Now she hopes her efforts will spark
goodwill.

"Now the Republicans and Democrats have to build relationships with each
other and give each other gracious space. They now have to listen to each
other and do what's best for the people. That's what it's all about."