School Board votes to certify election in Great Falls, but acknowledges ‘irregularities’

By: - May 26, 2023 5:41 pm

Voters casting ballots (Getty Images)

The Great Falls Public School District Board of Trustees voted 4-3 this week to certify the election results from their May 2 election, a first election run by newly elected Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant riddled with problems that some say left voters disenfranchised.

Two of the four “no” votes were from incumbent candidates who were on the ballot, Kim Skornogoski and Amie Thompson. Bill Bronson, also an incumbent candidate, voted “yes” to certify, but said “pick your poison.”

“Accepting the results – it does raise the question in people’s mind, ‘well, are you essentially forgiving or forgetting about the process of how those results were obtained?’” Bronson said. “We recognize there were some irregularities. There’s no question about it.”

In an interview, Skornogoski cited several of the issues and breaks from precedent with this election. She said one of the most concerning to her was at least two precincts not receiving absentee ballots.

Other issues included voters receiving two absentee ballots, ballots not fitting properly in the return envelope, and the polling location opening an hour late, with voters not able to submit ballots before going to work in the morning.

Skornogoski said it’s easier to vote to certify election results when it’s clear who won and who lost by a wide margin. The top three vote-getters received double the number of votes as the remaining two candidates. She said the board was on the same page in terms of concerns surrounding the election process, and said even though it was a split vote, it was not a contentious vote.

“There’s too many things that went wrong for me to endorse the results as accurate,” she said.

This election was Merchant’s first test as an Elections Administrator, as she beat out incumbent Clerk Rina Moore by less than 40 votes in November. In early March, Merchant sent emails to districts holding upcoming elections saying mail-in ballots would not be “administratively feasible,” and later that month she held a public meeting outlining the election would be a hybrid in person and absentee ballot election.

The rocky process and irregularities prompted the Great Falls Library Board to ask a judge to appoint a monitor for an upcoming mill levy election, and the judge agreed to do so.

“It’s sad when you’re the guinea pig for this process,” said Bronson in an interview Thursday, referring to the board election being one of the first overseen by Merchant.

Jane Weber, former Cascade County Commissioner and member of the recently formed Election Protection Committee, said she was not surprised by the vote outcome as the board has spent considerable time deliberating the election already.

“When you get election deniers like Rae Grulkowski and Sandra Merchant getting into public office, these two people in Cascade County have created the turmoil that’s occurring in this county,” Weber said.

Friday, Grulkowski did not respond to a voicemail and Merchant did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Weber attended the certification board meeting and said her and other committee members in attendance were impressed by the deliberation of the board on whether to certify.

Skornogoski, who has served on the board since 2017, said there are still questions remaining around the cost of the election to the district. She said the district in years past received the bill along with the election results, and that didn’t happen this time. The district received a preliminary estimate, but likely didn’t account for the extra day of ballot counting and potential extra staff hours needed to complete that, she said.

“By certifying the election, we also kind of took away this bargaining chip to push back on some of those things now,” Skornogoski said.

Brian Patrick with the Great Falls School District confirmed Friday the Board still has not received a bill from the Elections Office.

The Cascade County Canvas Board accepted the results of the election last week, according to reporting by The Electric.

Thompson, the other incumbent “no” vote, said in an interview Friday that she would have liked to see the bill for the election before canvassing, but as the bill wasn’t available Friday, the last day they could have certified, she said she was happy they went forward with the vote on Monday.

“My vote could have gone either way. I was really on the fence,” she said.

She said she was on the ballot last year as well, which she said was heated for different reasons, but there was one marked difference.

“There weren’t any questions about last year’s election and there have been a lot of questions about this year’s election,” she said. “That’s the big difference.”

Bronson, who has served on the board since 2020, said that the board would be put in “legal limbo” if they voted not to accept the results. He said there was discussion that current board members could appoint the incumbent candidates to serve for a year, but then they would be required to campaign and run again next year.

Bronson cited the vote split between winning candidates and the remaining two as another factor in his decision.

“Even if you assume that there were a sufficient number of voters that were disenfranchised in some way, that number doesn’t even get you to making a difference,” Bronson said.

He said that the state Supreme Court has said that if the irregularities wouldn’t amount to a change in the results, that there’s no basis for a challenge. He said there was “no excuse” for voters to be disenfranchised in not receiving ballots. He said his wife didn’t receive her ballot and his son tried to return his ballot at 7 a.m. on Election Day and wasn’t able to do so.

“When we’re canvassing an election, it’s a question of do we accept the results, and accepting results is not an approval in the process,” he said.

Skornogoski said the election process this year added stress and anxiety to an already nerve-wrecking thing to do. She said it was a distraction when the district has real issues and concerns for the next three year term, like educational gaps from the COVID-19 pandemic, along with federal funding to help with that issue sunsetting.

“Trying to come up with solutions to manage that learning loss and manage that funding loss,” she said. “Those are significant for the district.”

She said voters likely recognized that incumbents would likely meet that challenge and sought steady district leadership.

Bronson said he has confidence in the court appointing Lynn DeRoche, a former Elections Office employee who served under Moore and briefly under Merchant, as an Elections Monitor for the upcoming library mill levy election June 6. Judge Brenda Gilbert’s order, officially filed Monday, reflects what she said from the bench on Friday.

Bronson said the district will have to make a decision next year as to whether it will continue to use the county to administer the election or manage the process itself.

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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.