The call came in to the Independent late Tuesday afternoon from Lake County Commissioner Dave Stipe. After two straight days of recounts by Stipe and another Lake County Commissioner, Republican Paddy Trusler, as well as Democrat Clerk and Recorder Ruth Hodges, Lake County election officials had reached an official total in the all-important House District 12 legislative race between Constitution Party candidate Rick Jore and Democrat Jeanne Windham. Why “all-important?” Because the face of the next legislative session hangs in the balance. Democrats already control the Senate and the Governor’s office. If Windham wins, Democrats will tie Republicans in the house at 50-50 and Governor-elect Brian Schweitzer will see a member of his own party into the role of Speaker of the House. If Jore wins, the Republicans will hold on to a slim advantage in at least one branch of state government. Anyhow, on to the results (drum roll please):
“The official results are 1,559 for Jore and 1,559 for Windham,” Stipe says. “So we have a tie,” a true legislative rarity (though less rare in Montana, it seems, than in most states, since another House tie also occurred 20 years ago, in 1984).
What’s next is bound to be contentious.
First, Windham will attempt to have five contested ballots counted for Jore thrown out. The ballots featured markings for both Jore and Republican Jack Cross, who came in third in the race. If that move is unsuccessful, the race would remain a tie, a conundrum discussed in a primer released by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) with the sexy title “Legislative Deadlock: What if It Happens to You?” According to the NCSL, “In South Dakota and Montana, top chamber leaders [in tied legislative bodies] are selected from the party of the governor.
“We’ll send the results off to the secretary of state’s office and then it will go to the governor to decide,” Stipe confirms.
But which governor? Outgoing Republican Judy Martz or incoming Democrat Brian Schweitzer?
“The Democrats are going to argue that it should go to the governor in January [after Schweitzer is inaugurated]. But I think it goes to the governor now,” says Stipe, himself a Republican. “And Judy Martz is governor until the end of December.”
Late Tuesday, a lawyer representing Windham filed suit in Helena seeking a temporary restraining order to block Martz from appointing Jore to the seat. Windham also announced plans to sue local election officials over the recount. Jore announced that he has no plans to challenge the count.
And so the outlook, for now, is not much clearer than it was before the recounts, and the possibility that the makeup of the Montana house will be decided much like the 2000 appointment of George W. Bush—that is to say, by the judiciary—appears increasingly likely.