Cascade County ballots put out an hour late, COPP complaint rejected

By: - May 2, 2023 4:26 pm

Cascade County Election poll photographed on June 7, 2022. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Larry Winship and his wife Cheryl went to the Montana ExpoPark in Cascade County to vote before work at 7 a.m. Problem was: No ballots were ready.

Winship said they were asked if they could take a seat for a while, but they both had to get to work.

“I don’t know when we’ll get back, if we’ll get back, to vote on this one,” Winship said.

Poll watcher and former Cascade County Commissioner Jane Weber said ballots were put out an hour late at 8 a.m. on Election Day, and a handful of voters who came in to submit ballots before work couldn’t do so.

Winship said in his 40 years of voting in Cascade County, he’s never had an issue. Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant, a businesswoman, took office in January after beating 16-year incumbent Rina Moore by less than 40 votes last fall.

The Elections Office has been under public scrutiny after Merchant told the Great Falls Public School District and other districts with upcoming elections in February that she would be unable to hold an all mail-in ballot election.

According to a Great Falls Public School District press release Tuesday, the Elections Office reached out to the school district Thursday requesting it take the “registers” for the upcoming election, but didn’t say where to take them.

Cindy Gordon with the school district said registers referred to the voter list per precinct.

Brian Patrick with the school district picked them up, with the release saying there were no instructions from the Elections Office on what to do with them. The school district said the misunderstanding resulted in the box being delivered Tuesday morning, after polls already opened, leading to the delay.

“On Election day, May 2 at 7:10 a.m., the Superintendent’s administrative assistant received a telephone call from Sandra Merchant asking where the ‘registers, were,” the district’s press release said. “Upon learning for the first time that the registers were needed at the Expo Park, Brian Patrick immediately delivered them to the Expo Park at approximately 7:25 a.m.”

As previous elections were conducted by the County Elections Office, the district has never requested nor received the voting registers before an election.

Merchant did not respond to an emailed request for comment in time for publication.

Merchant is holding a hybrid poll and absentee ballot election for the school board and special district election Tuesday, as was presented in late March.

She said the poll election was necessary to keep costs down given the closure of a local ballot sorting company. However, the vast majority of the county votes absentee, and the office was required by the state to send those ballots to those voters.

Absentee ballot voters have had issues sending their ballots back, as they didn’t fit inside the return envelope. County Attorney Josh Racki told the Daily Montanan any ballot that comes back in the secrecy envelope and the return envelope will be counted.

Elliot Merja, who owns property in the Fort Shaw Irrigation District, said he received ballots that weren’t printed on traditional ballot paper stock, but on thin, 8.5- by- 11 computer paper, as first reported by The Electric. Merja is also the Irrigation District Board chairperson.

Merja and his brother both received ballots as the acreage of his land provided for two ballots. Property owners vote in irrigation and water districts and receive a number of votes based on property size.

The Election Protection Committee, a recently formed group dedicated to oversight of the elections process under Merchant, recently filed an ethics complaint with the Commissioner of Political Practices. The complaint was against Merchant and other county officials alleging electioneering and more than 20 untrained volunteers working in the Elections Office.

Commissioner Chris Gallus responded to the complaint on April 21, saying his office does not have jurisdiction but to forward concerns to County Attorney Racki. Gallus said the issue of a public employee soliciting support of a candidate or ballot issue did not have enough specifics for him to take further action.

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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.