HELENA, Mont. — Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch on Thursday accepted a replacement for U.S. House candidate Mike Fellows, who died in a car crash earlier this week, after a Libertarian Party internal dispute briefly threatened to delay county election officials from printing new ballots.
Rick Breckenridge of Proctor filed his paperwork with McCulloch’s office on Thursday morning after the Ravalli County Libertarian Central Committee chose him to replace Mike Fellows in the U.S. House race. Fellows, the longtime state chairman of the Libertarian Party, died Monday night in a head-on collision after a campaign event in Seeley Lake.
But a power struggle emerged within the party over Fellows’ successor as the head of the party who could properly name a replacement candidate, and McCulloch said Breckenridge’s filing could not be accepted until the dispute was settled.
The Ravalli County committee, the only organized Libertarian Party committee in the state, elected as its chairman David Merrick, which makes him the ranking member, Merrick and Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Ted Dunlap said. But another party faction backing a candidate other than Breckenridge told McCulloch’s office that Roger Roots, the Libertarian candidate for secretary of state, is the ranking party member after Fellow’s death, Dunlap said
Late Thursday afternoon, McCulloch spokeswoman Emily Dean said the issue of the replacement candidate had been resolved.
“We received a call from Roger Roots today and he was OK with Breckenridge’s appointment,” Dean said.
Fellows was making his eighth run for the House seat against the Republican incumbent, Rep. Ryan Zinke, and Democrat Denise Juneau. Fellows had never won a race and was considered a long-shot in this election.
Fellows’ death and the uncertainty over his replacement creates a new headache for Montana’s county election administrators, who must print corrected ballots with Breckenridge’s name on them. That means the counties will likely miss a Friday deadline to mail ballots to military and overseas voters.
The Secretary of State’s office is recommending that counties reprint their ballots in their entirety to ensure the accuracy of the election, out of fairness to the candidates and because it is the option that will provide the least disruption to Montana voters, according to a memo to county election officials.
Missing Friday’s deadline to get ballots to overseas voters may extend the time frame that those voters have to return the ballots, the memo said.
Election administrators already had to delay printing their ballots once earlier this month over questions of another Libertarian candidate’s eligibility. Montana Republican Party Chairman Jeff Essmann sued the state in a failed attempt to remove Roots from the ballot in the secretary of state race.
“We were relieved when that was all done, and now we’re back to square one,” said Cascade County election administrator Rina Moore.
Moore said officials in her office are unstuffing approximately 25,000 absentee ballots that had already been placed in envelopes. She estimated it will take about three days to re-print the corrected ballots once she gets the green light from the secretary of state’s office.
“I will have our printers run around the clock,” she said
While Breckenridge’s candidacy has been resolved, the question of succession within the state Libertarian Party has not.
Andrew Forcier, a candidate for state House who told McCulloch’s office that Roots is now the top Libertarian leader, was adamant that the question of party leadership is still open.
“That has not been resolved,” he said. “There’s no agreement on that.”
Merrick said dissent within the party is unusual.
“All of a sudden, Michael dies and it’s some sort of a melee,” he said.