The Cascade County Courthouse covered in snow in 2021. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)
A hand recount of ballots in Cascade County confirmed businesswoman Sandra Merchant beat 16-year incumbent Rina Moore by a razor-thin margin to become the county’s next Clerk and Recorder.
The recount concluded Tuesday morning, with Merchant holding a 36-vote lead over Moore. Recounts in Montana can be requested if the margin is less than 1/4 of 1% of the total votes cast.
On Friday, Merchant attempted to go through the courts to to block the election recount, according to court documents. Her request, amended and resubmitted on Monday, for a temporary restraining order was denied Tuesday by Ninth District Court Judge Robert Olson.
“Petitioner does not allege specific facts showing a delay would cause immediate and irreparable injury,” Olson wrote Tuesday. “There are no facts supporting a conclusion that a recount will cause the Petitioner immediate and irreparable harm.”
Merchant told the Daily Montanan on Tuesday that she filed the request because she did not believe the recount was being done according to Montana law. However, she said that didn’t make her doubt the results.
“Citizens were in there working and watching and making sure things were being done, and objected when they felt it needed to be done,” she said of the recount process. “The people are why we go through this.”
Moore said she didn’t understand why they wanted to stop the recount.
“They want to recount the 2020 election but they wanted to stop the recount on a race that was only 30 votes apart?” she said. “All it did was prove that the equipment ran exactly the way it’s supposed to run.”
Tensions have been high since the election upset happened.
On Veterans Day, an elections integrity group had waited outside the locked elections office while staff continued to process ballots, just days after the election concluded. Merchant said she wasn’t there, but that she had heard from poll watchers that they were told staff members were not going to be handling ballots.
“They wanted to be there as the ballots were being handled to have that citizen involvement. And they were told no one would be handling the ballots. And then they were in there with the ballots,” she said.
According to a county press release on Tuesday, the recount process required 28 county staff members to sort and count ballots, coupled with observers designated by both candidates as well as the county commissioners and legal staff.
The release said there were expected, slight differences in the totals between the machine count and the hand count “due largely to the human factor in the manual counting of votes.”
Ballots were counted at least twice by separate counting teams, but differences persisted, with a third team sometimes stepping in to try to get to a matching number.
“None of the variances would have impacted the outcome however so ultimately, the differences were accepted,” the release said.
The final results of the hand recount are as follows:
- Sandra Merchant: 14,342
- Rina Fontana Moore: 14,306
- All Others: 740
County Commission Chairman Joe Briggs said the county also hired recently retired Yellowstone County Election Administrator Bret Rutherford to help oversee the process as an objective third party. Briggs said Rutherford’s services will likely cost the county a little more than $5,000 as the counting process went into Tuesday morning as well.
There was some pushback from the election integrity group that was skeptical of hiring Rutherford as he was, until recently, a colleague of Moore’s as an election administrator.
“Montana is really just one town with really long streets, most of the commissioners know each other, most of the treasurers know each other, most of the election administrators know each other,” Briggs said. “They served together on a national board, which is a credit to both of them. That’s hardly a reason to think that somehow there’s a bias there.”
The recount process went smoothly, Briggs said, and the election integrity group members in attendance were polite and professional.
Briggs said he would like to see some of the current duties of the Clerk and Recorder be divided up into roles hired by the county, like reinstating a chief fiscal officer and having a non-elected official in charge of elections.
“This has nothing to do with who’s been elected. This has to do with structure and operations. Clerk and recorder is responsible for an extremely wide range of services,” he said. “The person in charge of accounting needs to be CPA, and I don’t think an elected official, a single elected official, should be in charge of elections. Those are the two changes that I have proposed.”
Merchant said she would be training and continue studying the Montana Code Annotated before she starts in January.
She said she wanted to restore confidence in the local government with transparency and citizen involvement.
“People should be able to ask questions, and they’re welcome to always come in and ask questions and teach me things and give their input. I will always listen to what they have to say. I’ll try to make everything open,” she said.
She said many people have told her that they were unable to get public information and be involved, but she had not tried to request information herself.
Moore said she’s pleased with the results and that they prove the machines work. She said she was thankful to her supporters and staff, especially to Lynn DeRoche who had “weathered the storm with her” these past 16 years but especially in the last year.
Moore said she’d been doing real estate appraisal on the side, but now plans doing it full time.
“I can’t say that I didn’t give my very best for the last 16 years,” she said. “I’m walking out of there with my head held high, and I’m moving into the world of private real-estate appraisal.”
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