County approves third-party contract for election recount

County Commissioners voted unanimously to hire third-party consultant to oversee the recount of the clerk and recorders office.

Commissioners held a special meeting Nov. 22 after completing the election canvas on Nov. 18 to discuss the contract since they expected Rina Fontana Moore, the current clerk and recorder, to request a recount.

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Once all the ballots were counted, Moore trailed challenger Sandra Merchant by 31 votes, well within the threshold under state law to request a recount.

The law allows a losing candidate to request a recount if the results are within a quarter of a percent of the total ballots cast in that race.

The law states that a candidate can request a recount if they believe it will change the outcome of the race.

Moore told The Electric last week that she trusted the machines but wanted those who had challenged the county election process, and legislators who are proposing to do away with absentee ballots, to see the work required to count ballots by hand.

Some people spoke in opposition stating that the recount was unnecessary and that Moore didn’t meet the requirement of believing it would change the results.

Commissioners and Phoebe Marcinek, a deputy county attorney, said that Moore had filed the appropriate form to request a recount under the law and once that form is filed, they have to follow the law to conduct a recount.

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Commissioners voted unanimously to hire Rutherford Consulting of Yellowstone County to administer the recount process.

Bret Rutherford, the firm’s principal, served Yellowstone county in their elections department since 2005 and as the county’s appointed chief elections administrator since 2010. He resigned the position to start this consulting firm in September of 2022, according to County Commissioner Joe Briggs.

The total cost will depend on the method and staffing used as well as the number of days required but Rutherford’s bid amount for his services to run the process is $4,300 plus per diem and travel assuming a one-day recount, Briggs told The Electric.

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Some members of the public said that Rutherford had a conflict of interest since he had served in the same position as Moore, an elections administrator, in another county and that they had served on a state elections committee together.

Commissioner Don Ryan said that the county wanted a third party to oversee the recount to avoid any conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

He said that the hand counted tally may result in a different vote count that would either show the validity of the ballot counting machines, which a local group have been saying for months aren’t to be trusted, or confirm their fears if it’s far off.

Ryan said that he’s thankful there’s only one race that needs a hand county this year since it’s a labor intensive and time consuming process.

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“We think it’s necessary” to hire the outside company, Ryan said.

Commissioner Joe Briggs said that it’s a good chance to address the critics questions on whether the ballot counting machines are accurate.

The state requires vote audits after an election in which two precincts are chosen and recounted to ensure the machine counts are accurate.

There have been no formal complaints or evidence of election fraud in Cascade County for years, according to county officials and the former commissioner of political practices who left office in early November.

Rutherford told commissioners that the plan is to conduct the recount at the fairgrounds beginning Nov. 28 and expected that it would take 25 people one to two days to count the roughly 30,000 ballots cast in the clerk and recorders race.

Rutherford said they’ll go through the ballots and sort them into piles of votes for Moore or Merchant and then count them several times to ensure accuracy since there’s human error in hand counts.

Rutherford said they’ll use the Montana Secretary of State’s recount guide and the public will be able to observe the process.

Marcinek told commissioners that staff are planning to pull about three people per county department to assist in the recount.

They’ll be counting from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Nov. 28 with an hour break for lunch, with the same schedule on Nov. 29 if needed, officials said.

Rutherford said they’re working with county staff to secure ballots at the fairgrounds during the process and if that doesn’t work, they’ll transport them back to the county elections office. Any transport of ballots will include a county attorney and county deputy, Marcinek said.

Rae Grulkowski, who defeated incumbent Don Ryan for a county commission seat on Nov. 8, said that she thought the county should move on the post election audit and not conduct the recount.

Several of those speaking in opposition to the recount, or hiring an outside firm to conduct the recount, have spent the last few months arguing that the county election process, which is governed by state and federal law, is flawed and not trustworthy. They’ve argued conflicts of interest without the county elections office, accused county staff of wrongdoing and said the vote counting machines are subject to tampering.

There has been limited to no evidence of their claims and the national conspiracy theories they’ve shared have been widely debunked.

Lola Sheldon Galloway, a sitting state legislator, had someone read her comments on her behalf during the meeting and said that the recount should have started last week.

Had that happened before the official election canvas, that would have been a violation of state law, a comment that Commissioner Joe Briggs said was concerning.

Briggs said that elected officials had to follow the law and that’s the “only thing that keeps them from becoming tyrants.”

He said the county had received a valid request for a recount and under state law, had to administer that process.

Commissioner Don Ryan said they’d been listening for months to people in their chambers say that the machines can’t be trusted and that all ballots should be counted by hand.

He said that this would give the an inkling of the work involved in a hand count and likely demonstrate the accuracy of the counting machines.

Ryan said they’ve received anonymous documents stating thousands of fraudulent ballots had been cast in Montana, making an “absurd claim” with no basis in fact.

“I think it’s worth $5,000 to get it right,” Ryan said.