County clerk race going to recount; officials discussing moving elections office under county commission

The race for Cascade County clerk and recorder is going to a recount.

At last count around 4 a.m. Nov. 5, during election night, the race between incumbent Rina Fontana Moore and challenger Sandra Merchant was 20 votes apart.

On Nov. 14, election officials processed and counted roughly 100 military and provisional ballots in front of official observers, attorneys and about two dozen onlookers from both parties.

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After that count, Merchant leads by 31 votes, well within the state law of one-quarter of a percent of votes count for a race to trigger a recount.

Moore is requesting a recount.

She said that she trusts the process and the machine but wants those who have criticized the election process to experience a hand count of nearly 30,000 ballots since they are proposing to eliminate absentee ballots and do full hand counts in county elections.

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The hand recount of the Moore-Merchant race will likely start later this week, according to county officials.

Provisional and military ballots were processed by a panel of three election judges on Nov. 14 who make up the county election resolution board and have for years, according to multiple county officials.

They were officially observed by three people, two Republicans and one Democrat, sent by the parties themselves.

Moore did not participate in the processing or counting of the ballots on Monday.

On Nov.11, a federal holiday, county staff, election judges and observers were preparing the military and provisional ballots. Some that have raised questions about the county election process were outside the county offices photographing and recording staff and observers, resulting in the sheriff’s office being called.

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Staff said they left lights on in the building to ensure nothing would be tampered with, but those claiming election fraud texted the county attorney and sheriff about the lights being on. County attorneys reviewed the security camera footage on Nov. 14 to verify that no one had entered the elections office or touched any ballots.

On Nov. 14, the last ballots being processed and counted were locked into a county deputy’s patrol car until officials were ready to count.

County Commissioner Joe Briggs attended the provisional vote count on Nov. 14 and said that he’s planning to propose an ordinance change to move county elections under the commission.

He said that an elected official shouldn’t be in control of ballot counts.

Briggs said that for as long as he could remember, the county clerk and recorder’s office had been a consolidated position that oversaw elections.

If the commission were to take elections under their purview, Briggs said he’d talked to the county attorney’s office about structuring it so that any commissioner on the ballot wouldn’t be involved in the process.

Typically, county commissioners are on a rotating schedule for elections as they serve six year terms so a commissioner is on the ballot every two years.

This year, two commissioners were on the ballot since Jane Weber, a former commissioner resigned in 2021and Don Ryan was appointed to fill the remainder of her term, putting him on the ballot this year, with Briggs who ran unopposed.

Briggs said he wanted to put an ordinance change proposal before commissioners as soon as possible to move elections under the commission office.

He said in that scenario it would elevate elections to a county department with a hired department head.

Brigs said he wanted to bring it before commissioners as soon as possible after the canvas, which is not yet scheduled.

The canvas requires three elected officials and Briggs said that there were only two elected county officials who weren’t on this year’s ballot. He said they were working with the county attorney’s office to determine if an elected official who was unchallenged on this year’s ballot could be a part of the official canvas.

Briggs said those raising election integrity concerns had made their point and while, “I don’t think anything hinky has happened,” he said he believed the elections office should be moved under the commission.

One specific issue he said he noticed was that the Montana Secretary of State didn’t require a crosscheck on ballot counts for county races, though the office does for federal and state races on the same ballots.

Some of the election integrity group members have asserted that if Merchant is elected over Moore that certain county staff would be fire immediately due to their affiliation with Moore.

Briggs and other county officials said that’s now how county human resources policy or union rules work.

He said that because the county budget officer is also retiring, officials are looking at creating a new county chief financial officer position.

Briggs said he had faith in the county process and the ballot counting machines but that “sometimes circumstances create a situation where change is easier.”

Commissioner Jim Larson said that since the Montana Secretary of State told county commissioners that they had to oversee instances like Nov. 14 for counting provisional ballots and any recounts that he’d prefer elections fall under the commission office, but that now would be a “terrible time” to make that change.

He said they needed to give Merchant time in her new position and to see how she’d handle the situation before making any major changes.

But, Larson said, “I trust the process completely. Even with the issues that have been raised, I haven’t seen any proof of any reason that we should change the process.”

Merchant told The Electric that her first priority would be to move county accounting back to the commission to separate accounting from auditing.

As far as elections go, Merchant said she was watching the process and watching what happens.