County redoing drainage district election, two seats on May 4 ballot
Residents in the West Great Falls Drainage District will be receiving letters in the coming days regarding a May 4 elections.
The district, which was established by the district court in 1967, constructs and maintains levies, dikes and other facilities for flood control on the west side of the city.
It is managed by three commissioners who are elected for three-year terms “or until a successor is elected or appointed,” according to court documents.
Two commission seats will be on the May 4 ballot.
One of the races is a redo of the May 2020 election that the district court invalidated in December.
The drainage district elections are weighted, meaning the vote is tied to the property rather than the property owner, according to the elections office. Under state law, “in all elections 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.”
Single property owners will receive their ballots in the mail around April 20.
The letter than the elections office is sending out this week will include an agent designation form and in cases with more than one person on the deeded property, those residents should fill out the form to select the voter for the property and the elections office will issue a ballot to that person.
The form must be returned to the elections office by April 19 for a ballot to be issued. The county will include a postage paid envelope to return the forms.
According to Rina Moore, county elections official, if her office receives the forms after April 19, they’ll mail a ballot but would encourage those voters to bring the forum to the office and pick up their ballot in person to ensure it can be completed and returned by May 4.
The elections office had planned to reedo the 2020 election on March 16 and asked the district court to resolve some of their questions regarding ambiguities in the law and determining eligible voters.
Initially, the county interpreted the law and the December court order invalidating the 2020 election to require the county to redo the election within 85 days, but later determined that a 2015 law change states the redo election be conducted “at least” 85 days from the invalidated election.
The court did not offer guidance on most of the county’s questions regarding the election.
In her order, Judge Elizabeth Best writes that the “court cannot issue advisory opinions. A controversy, to be justiciable, must be ‘real and substantial…as distinguished from an opinion advising what the law would be upon a hypothetical state of facts, or upon an abstract proposition.’ This court lacks the authority to decide speculative issues or enter ‘anticipatory judgments…deal with theoretical problems, give advisory opinions..provide for contingencies which may hereafter arise, or give abstract opinions.’ While the court sympathizes with the county and the district as they attempt to navigate the statutory framework with which they are presented, the court simply cannot weigh in at this time because it lacks jurisdiction in the absence of a justiciable controversy.”
In December, Best declared the May 2020 election invalid and ordered that the county redo the election for that seat.
The election was on the May 5 ballot and incumbent Nicky Putnam was seeking reelection. She was unseated by Scott Lankford by 29 votes.
In her complaint, Putnam argued that election was invalid because ballots were sent to all residents of the district instead of only those owning property in the district, as required by law.
The elections office had interpreted the law to include all registered voters in the district, according to Rina Moore, county clerk and recorder. That included voters who rented property within the district, which the court has deemed to be incorrect.
According to the petition, 830 ballots were mailed and 482 were returned. Only 519 ballots should have been sent to those owning property in the district, according to the complaint.
The election will cost $2,000 to $3,000, according to the elections office.
Putnam notified the Cascade County Elections Office of the error on May 11 and the elections office asked County Attorney Josh Racki’s office for an opinion.
In their June 18 letter to the elections office, the county attorney’s office stated, “based upon election privacy laws, it is not possible at this time after the election to screen out the votes case by ineligible and unqualified voters to determine which voters were case by eligible and qualified individuals versus voters which were not,” according to the petition.
Putnam filed her petition with the court until July.
Elections officials expressed concern with the court’s decision to invalidate the election since in their interpretation, state law requires that a candidate contest the results of an election within 5 days.