New Cascade County elections officer fields questions at heated meeting

School Board and Library mill elections will be held with a hybrid absentee ballot and poll election, GFPS is looking to revert to all mail-in

By: - April 1, 2023 10:59 am

Cascade County residents fill the Family Life Center on the County Fairgrounds to hear a presentation on the plan for the upcoming elections. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

GREAT FALLS — An estimated 150 people packed the Family Living Center on Friday for the Cascade County elections officer’s presentation on how the upcoming local elections were going to be conducted in a meeting that featured some heated exchanges and continued questions around cost.

Community members and department heads piled into the standing-room only space and more than 100 tuned via Zoom to seek answers about how new Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant would hold five upcoming local elections. The questions arose after Merchant sent emails to the school districts in March saying the planned mail-in ballot election would not be possible and requesting the Great Falls Public Library postpone its election to September.

Merchant said during the presentation Friday absentee ballots will be going out April 17 and a poll election will be conducted for the school board election on May 2, a break from the typical mail-in ballot election where ballots are sent to all registered voters in the county. She also confirmed the public schools mill levy election will take place on June 6.

But members of the public and at least one other elected official still had unanswered questions, and the Elections Office in Cascade County isn’t the only one in the state seeing issues. The clerk and recorder and election staff in Lincoln County all quit March 24 , as reported by KPAX and the Daily Inter Lake this week, leaving confusion for their upcoming school board election as well.

Questions in Cascade County

Sign for the Cascade County Election Office photographed on March 31, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

In Cascade County, one question that remains is the cost differential between holding a hybrid poll-election with absentee ballots vs. sending ballots to all registered voters. More than 80% of the county typically votes by mail.

At the meeting, Merchant said sending ballots to just absentee voters would be cost-effective, citing the cost of the multiple envelopes and materials as well as the cost involved in using an out-of-county ballot sorter, but didn’t have hard numbers on the differential.

“I’m a numbers guy,” said Cascade County Commissioner Joe Briggs following the presentation. “I didn’t get any numbers.”

Briggs said following the meeting that he has been saying since September the elections administrator should not be an elected official, and he still feels that way, even though he said he’s alone on the commission with that stance.

“Elections should be run by the commissioners who are not on the ballot and then a third elected official who is not on the ballot, so that we have oversight on that department that is not directly affected by the processing of the election,” Briggs said. “That’s just good policy.”

Briggs said he had received no cost estimates prior to the presentation, which was the first plan he’d seen from Merchant. He said there’s going to be an increase in cost no matter what because no one in the County has the sorting equipment to get reduced postage rates that they previously got through a company that now closed.

“That’s simple fact.”

Director of Business Services and Operations for Great Falls Public Schools Brian Patrick said in an email Friday after the meeting that the GFPS Board of Trustees would be holding a meeting Monday to “re-request” a mail-in ballot for the district. He said GFPS still has questions concerning costs.

“We were not consulted when the decision was made to do a poll election,” Patrick said. “It seemed like the reason was because excessive costs. She is now doing it in house so those costs should be eliminated.”

The GFPS website shows a special meeting scheduled for Monday, April 3 at 5:30 p.m.

Great Falls Public Schools SuperIntendent Tom Moore was among those who asked Merchant questions during the meeting about the upcoming plan. The public was limited to asking questions specific to the presentation, and more than 30 people took the opportunity to question Merchant, the majority of whom were critics unsure about the path forward.

Jasmine Taylor, who formerly ran as a Democrat for a Great Falls House District, asked Merchant about whether a poll election was the “economically and administratively feasible” path forward, saying a poll election could cost an increased $45,000. No county official has confirmed the cost difference.

“How do you justify an increased cost to our taxpayers of $45,000 because you failed to plan and effectively perform your duties?” she asked.

Merchant said she’s been doing her duty and communicating with the Secretary of State to ensure she’s following the law.

“I don’t know where that figure of $45,000 comes from, and if you would like to provide me with some of those figures, I will take a look at it,” Merchant said.

When asked following the presentation if she would make public the figures that she can confirm, she said she wasn’t sure if she could legally. In response to a question from the Daily Montanan, Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki, who stood nearby, said it was legal to provide costs to the public, and that the information could be made available in a press release, but doing so would be up to Merchant, or would be available by a public information request.

Some defend new clerk and recorder

Merchant also had her defenders at the meeting.

Julie Bass asked Merchant if she received a “warm pass over” from previous Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore, a question she had to restructure and ultimately didn’t get answered by Merchant as the crowd questioned relevance and Cascade County Commission Chair Rae Grulkowski said it was in a “gray area.”

A crowd member shouted that it wasn’t relevant, to which Bass responded, “it’s reality.” Another audience member retorted with an accusation Bass was an election denier, and yelling back and forth ensued, which quickly resolved itself as the next person went up to speak.

Lynn DeRoche, who worked under Moore for 16 years and under Merchant for the first month she was in office, earlier told the Daily Montanan that Merchant never asked her help after she offered it. It was only when DeRoche said she was accepting a new job offer that Merchant asked for assistance with the upcoming flood and irrigation district elections, which DeRouche said wouldn’t have been possible to complete with the days on the job she had left.

The first resident to step up to the mic, Elliot Merja, asked Merchant about notarized signatures for the upcoming Fort Shaw Irrigation District election.

Merchant said that was something she would have to talk to the district’s board about.

“I am the chair of that board,” Merja said.

Merchant said she normally deal’s with Merja’s wife, which he said was actually his brother’s ex. It wasn’t clear from the meeting whether the ex also was a board member.

Merchant later said last names got her mixed up.

Merchant confirmed during the meeting that absentee voters who have voted by mail in past elections would still be able to do so, and that the ballots would be sorted in-house, a task that was previously handled by a local company that provided mail sorting services that closed earlier this year.

Merchant, a local businesswoman, won the clerk and recorder’s race in November after a hand recount by fewer than 40 votes against 16-year incumbent Rina Moore. Several sources have told the Daily Montanan Merchant was active in an election integrity group before assuming office.

Elections official answers some, not all, questions

Merchant said sorting the ballots in-house was the more cost-effective and secure way of sorting ballots than the alternative the county had, which was using a sorting company from outside the county, which would have required significant logistics to ensure security of the ballots.

The reasons she gave for the change were the same as had been included in emails to school districts earlier this year, listing learning the new elections software ElectMT, the upcoming redistricting process, the closure of the ballot sorting company, Innovative Postal Services, and staffing shortages among present challenges.

She mentioned that the majority of counties handle ballot sorting in-house and that her office acquired a permit with the U.S. Postal Service to be able to mail the absentee ballots to voters.

“The ballots are targeted mailings, they’re mailed to the absentee voters,” she said. “And then the voters have a choice. The polls are open. If you want to vote in a poll, you’d prefer that way, you can go to that. If you want to use your absentee ballot and mail it in, you can do that.”

Briggs asked how the Elections Office was planning to handle an extra 10,000 people who wouldn’t be getting a mail-in ballot that would need to vote in person to cast their ballot, saying staffing requirements would have to go up.

“What you don’t have to have when you do a mail ballot is three election judges at each precinct table that are watching the poll,” he said.

Resident Ashby Burchard asked Merchant during the meeting why the county should have polls open if the county needed to send out 87% of ballots to registered voters regardless.

Merchant said there were 8,000 to 10,000 registered voters in the county who were not absentee voters and cited the new state election system, ElectMT.

“Is it really that much more to go from 30,000 to 40,000 and just do an all mail-in?” Burchard asked. “It seems like that’s an efficiency thing.”

Grulkowski, who also assumed office in January, said Burchard could call the Elections Office for more discussion and that the specific accurate number of voters was needed first.

Great Falls Public Library Board Chair Whitney Olson said Merchant had not confirmed whether their June 6 Mill Levy election would be a poll or mail-in election and that the library had budgeted $45,000 for a mail-in election.

“Can I assume from the presentation that you will be conducting an absentee mail plus an in-person voting for the library?” Olson asked.

In response, Merchant said the library had not asked for a mail-in election.

Olson asked Merchant if it would be possible to hold their June 6 election as a mail-in election, to which Merchant said there was a process for that and the library could meet with her.

Great Falls Public Library Director Susie McIntyre said following the meeting that the library appreciated that Cascade County held the meeting to communicate with the public.

If the library levy doesn’t pass by July 1, it would lead to staffing and service shortages, and not being open as many hours could lead to a loss of $30,000 in state funding as well.

“We look forward to working with the election office to assist them in meeting all the deadlines and conducting a fair and legal election,” she said in an email to the Daily Montanan on Saturday.

Merchant told the crowd during her presentation that people can come to her office and ask questions if they still had them.

“The people have elected me to this office for transparency and integrity, and that’s what I intend to fulfill,” she said. “I am a citizen just like you are, a citizen of Cascade County, and I also vote here too. I put my ballot in the box just like everybody else does. And I also want fair, transparent and secure elections.”

One resident asked if Merchant could explain how she felt about mail-in ballots, to which she said her feelings on mail-in ballots were not relevant.

“I’m not going by my feelings. I don’t work by my feelings. I’m not running the election by my feelings other than looking at the circumstances and trying to deal with those as fast as I could,” she said.

Following the meeting, resident Mike Cooper said Merchant is doing a great job.

“If the Dems don’t like it, I think they need to try to look and see what they do to support the election,” he said.

Former Cascade County Commissioner Jane Weber, who questioned Merchant during the meeting, said afterward that she didn’t feel her questions were answered. She said Merchant was blaming the new statewide election system ElectMT, and that other counties were doing fine with it.

“​​I think she is hiding behind this as an excuse,” Weber said.

Editor’s Note: Elliot Merja and Whitney Olson’s names were corrected in this story. 

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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.