Lawsuit: Cascade County Elections Office mishandled, must redo, two district elections

By: - May 30, 2023 5:26 pm

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

Two districts in Cascade County want their elections voided and conducted again in what marks the second lawsuit related to the County Election Office’s handling of the May 2 election.

The districts want the elections for their respective boards redone within 85 days, saying violations of election law likely affected the outcomes, according to a lawsuit filed on Friday.

In the lawsuit, voters from the West Great Falls Flood and Drainage Control District and Fort Shaw Irrigation District said Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant sent ballots to residents who were not eligible to vote and failed to send them to eligible voters in the special election, and in the other election didn’t enclose instructions for voters or a secrecy envelope.

Merchant, a businesswoman also known in the community as a 2020 election denier, was elected Clerk and Recorder by less than 40 votes last November, beating out 16-year incumbent Rina Moore. The May 2 election featured voters receiving more than one ballot, no ballot, and a delay in opening the polling location on Election Day. The results for the local election came in the next day.

Following the problems on Election Day, the Great Falls Public Library Board of Trustees went to court, requesting a monitor for its June 6 mill levy election, marking the first legal dispute regarding the elections under Merchant. A district court judge granted the library board’s request and appointed a monitor earlier this month.

Plaintiffs for both districts are represented by Attorney Steven Potts, who previously sent a letter to Cascade County Commissioners outlining the issues and recommending the county not certify the election. The Cascade County Canvas Board accepted the results of the election earlier this month, according to reporting by The Electric.

Ballots in both the Drainage and Irrigation district elections are different in that they are sent to property owners instead of only registered voters.

  • In irrigation districts: Each elector is permitted to cast one vote for each acre of irrigable land or major fraction of an acre owned by the elector within the district, according to the Montana Code Annotated.
  • In drainage districts: Each elector shall be permitted to cast one vote for each 40 acres of land or major fraction thereof in the district owned by such elector, but any elector owning 20 acres or less shall be entitled to one vote, according to the Montana Code Annotated.

Drainage District

Plaintiffs Timothy and Laurie Miller own property in the drainage district, however Timothy Miller was not sent a ballot and Laurie Miller was sent a ballot for a different plot of land, according to the filing.

Residents who were not owners were sent ballots and voted, the filing said. Voters in the drainage district were sent a notice that included elector requirements for the irrigation district, not the drainage district, according to the suit. Merchant instructed the Millers to designate someone to vote, even though there is no requirement for that procedure, according to the filing.

A notice for the election read, “If you are a resident of the district … you do not need to complete this form and may vote ….” The plaintiffs said residents who were not owners or designated by owners subsequently received ballots and voted.

The letter previously sent by Potts on behalf of plaintiffs said their son Philip M. Miller, who is not a property owner and was not designated to receive a ballot, did receive one and voted. The reason he did so is unclear from the letter.

The filing said if the rules for the irrigation district were applied for the drainage district, then Merchant incorrectly distributed ballots, which likely impacted the outcome.

The letter said there is precedent for the court intervening, as it did after ballots were sent to registered voters as opposed to eligible voters in the district in 2020 and a special election was conducted in 2021 as a result. 

Irrigation District

Plaintiffs Elliot Merja and Riley Denning, property owners in the irrigation district, said the district violated the law by refusing to accept valid change documents regarding designated agents within 14 days permitted by law, and failed to notify the elections office about the change within the legally allowed four days. Property owners have the right in irrigation districts to designate someone of their choosing to vote on their behalf, according to the MCA.

The letter previously sent by Potts said the designation forms Denning submitted prior to the election outlined Denning was entitled to 819 votes, as opposed to 197 votes displayed on the ballot sent to him.

The letter also outlined what Merja and Denning argue is an incorrect requirement from the elections office, saying that the office mandated electors to submit a new form to receive a ballot for the election even if they had submitted the same form previously. The letter outlines that proper procedure meant a new form was required only if there was a change in the designation.

Merja, chairperson of the Irrigation District Board, was on the ballot for the irrigation district election and received the second-fewest votes, according to the tally posted to the County Elections website.

Merja and Denning allege the county sent ballots out late, on April 20 and 21, when they should have been sent April 17, and also didn’t include required signature envelopes, secrecy envelopes, and a form to be able to correct an address with the Elections Office if needed.

KRTV reported Tuesday that the public test of the election equipment for the June 6 Library mill levy election is scheduled for Thursday.

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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.

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