Merchant refuses election monitor; Great Falls library takes request to court

By: - May 11, 2023 4:49 pm

Cascade County Courthouse photographed on March 31, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Great Falls Public Library is requesting the district court require an elections monitor for its upcoming June 6 mill levy election after Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant said in a letter she did not consent to a monitor.

The request comes after the elections office’s handling of the May 2 Great Falls Public Schools board of trustees election, in which the library claimed, both in its letter to Merchant and its legal filing Wednesday that voters were disenfranchised and the office didn’t follow proper procedures.

“The Election Administrator in Cascade County has proven incapable of conducting an election that meets the requirements of Montana law,” the library’s brief submitted Wednesday read.

The June 6 mill levy election would determine whether the library will be able to maintain staffing levels and service capabilities, as well as $30,000 in state funds.

The library is requesting the court set up an expedited hearing where Merchant would show cause as to why a monitor should not be appointed for the June 6 election. The filing said counsel the county do not oppose the hearing but do oppose the appointment of a monitor.

Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki said Thursday the insurance broker for the county, the Montana Association of Counties, appointed Bozeman attorney Elizabeth Lund to represent Merchant.

Raph Graybill, counsel for the library, said in an email to the Daily Montanan that seeking a monitor for the election is to “provide the least intrusive means of ensuring a fair election.”

“There’s no downside: If the election has no issues, the monitor doesn’t interfere. If there are issues, then the monitor can help to head them off or, if necessary, flag them for the court,” Graybill said. “That’s far less intrusive than asking a court to have someone take over the office or, worse, invalidating the election after it’s taken place.

“The library’s only goal is to ensure a fair, lawful election. We want the election administrator to succeed.”

Graybill gave an example of when Montana courts intervened after state procedures weren’t followed during a recount of a 2018 Musselshell County sheriff’s election. He said it’s not uncommon for courts in Montana to get involved to ensure that proper election procedures are followed. The library said in the filing it was possible for the court to appoint an elections monitor under powers granted through the Montana Code Annotated.

The elections office has been under public scrutiny after Merchant told stakeholders, including the Great Falls Public Schools District and the library in February, that she would be unable to hold an all mail-in ballot election. In November, Merchant narrowly won the election over 16-year incumbent Rina Moore.

In Merchant’s response to the library’s initial letter requesting an election monitor, Merchant responded to some of the concerns raised, which included incorrect information in ballot instructions and concerns over electioneering against the mill levy election inside the office.

“We have bolstered our training for volunteers and have made it abundantly clear that distribution of campaign materials and electioneering is strictly prohibited in this office,” Merchant’s letter read.

She said Susie McIntyre, the director of the Great Falls Library, approved the ballot sent to her and that the elections office will follow all laws regarding election judges.

In the legal filing, the library listed errors that were included in the sample ballot they received, which they said included instructions about write-in candidates and provided incomplete and misleading information about how and where voters may return their completed ballots on election day, including a location that would be unstaffed and closed.

Merchant said she would be sending updated ballot instructions to the library for approval on Thursday. As of mid-afternoon Thursday, Graybill said the library had not received them.

The library said careful copy editing could prevent some issues, but others, like not sending absentee ballots on time or correctly, could open up the election to being invalidated.

At a library board meeting Friday to discuss potential legal action prior to the election, Merchant cited issues with the new election software ElectMT as part of the issue on Election Day, as reported by the Great Falls Tribune. However, the Secretary of State’s office said this was not a widespread issue and did not hear from Cascade County about it.

“The Secretary of State’s Office did not experience or receive reports of counties having issues with ElectMT delaying election results,” said Secretary of State spokesperson Richie Melby in an email on Thursday. “We did not receive such an inquiry from the Cascade County elections office.”

Another ethics complaint was filed with the Committee of Political Practices regarding the May 2 school board election, this time by incumbent board member Bill Bronson.

Bronson said in the complaint, obtained by the Daily Montanan, that a text message was sent to Great Falls residents prior to the election with false information about party affiliation of various school board candidates, which he points out is a non-partisan election.

Bronson also said that the text message didn’t have a disclaimer as to the organization who sponsored it, which he said he traced to be an organization called “Free to Learn Action.” Bronson said he is requesting the COPP investigate the issue.

Commissioner Chris Gallus was not immediately available by phone Thursday to confirm their receipt of the complaint or detail the office’s response.

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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.