Presentation for election plan in Cascade County canceled, to be rescheduled for date unknown

By: - March 22, 2023 6:27 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

A planned presentation on how Cascade County will conduct upcoming elections was cancelled as Elections Officer Sandra Merchant tested positive for COVID-19, County Attorney Josh Racki said on Wednesday

Racki said the meeting would likely be rescheduled for next week.

The presentation was slated to provide details about how the elections will run after Merchant said via email that she would be unable to use mail ballots, and needed to move upcoming elections. Cascade County has five upcoming local elections. Merchant also said she would like to push the special levy election for the school back to September.

The emails from Merchant created confusion among school districts and the library about logistical details surrounding the upcoming elections. Sun River Valley School District Business Manager Belinda Klick asked Merchant who would staff a poll election and if the district would be expected to facilitate it. Klick told the Daily Montanan last week she didn’t think the district would be able to move forward with its election.

Great Falls Public Library Director Susie McIntyre said the library needs the funds that hang in the balance with the June 6 special mill levy election by July 1 in order to avoid having to cut services and risk losing state funding.

In a Tuesday press release, Merchant said the school election would be “completed as directed by the Montana Secretary of State.” The SOS Office does not oversee school elections; the office previously told Merchant to seek guidance from County Attorney Racki.

Merchant said in the release “All Absentee Requested Ballots will be mailed on April 17th, 2023, as prescribed by the Montana Secretary of State.”

Voters have until 25 days before an election to request an absentee ballot, according to the Montana Secretary of State. Election Day for school districts across the state is May 2.

Great Falls Public Schools Business Services and Operations Director Brian Patrick said the district is glad that absentee ballots will be sent out as 87% of voters submit their ballots by mail.

“We are anxiously awaiting to hear the plans and disappointed that we will have to wait longer to hear them,” Patrick said in an emailed response Wednesday.

Merchant did not respond to emailed questions in time for publication.

On Monday, protesters gathered outside the Cascade County Courthouse Annex, some with signs asking Merchant to resign, as reported by KRTV. Racki said Merchant has not made any indication she’d resign.

Melissa Smith, who ran as a Democrat for a Great Falls House District last fall and lost to Republican Rep. Scot Kerns, attended the Monday rally. She said there were an estimated 40 to 50 people over the course of the protest.

“In general, it was pretty nonpartisan. It was more about, you know, here’s somebody who’s just not doing their job and we need a competent person to fulfill the election duties.”

Smith said she would like to see former Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore reinstated. Moore served in the position for 16 years and lost re-election to Merchant by less than 40 votes in November.

“If Rina Moore would come back, that would be fantastic,” Smith said. “Because we know that she can get the job done.”

There are five upcoming local elections in Cascade County including:

  • the trustee elections for Great Falls School District and Sun River Valley School District,
  • the Great Falls Public Library mill levy proposal,
  • the Fort Shaw Irrigation District, and
  • and the West Great Falls Flood District.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.