County still working on plan for mail services, elections

County officials are still looking at options to handle mail services and elections as Innovated Postal Services is closing at the end of February.

Commissioners met with Denise Riggin of IPS and Sandra Merchant, the newly elected clerk and recorder, during a Feb. 3 meeting.

Commissioner Joe Briggs told The Electric last week that no decisions have been made and Merchant was heading up the effort to gather information.

The county produces a substantial amount of mail and elections is only a small part of that, but has more associated regulation, Briggs said.

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He said county officials are talking to Advanced Litho Printing to see what services they can provide and that commissioners asked Merchant to also call other vendors to determine options.

Merchant does not have contracting authority.

IPS sorted ballots before delivering them to the post office, which was a cost savings, and Briggs said not many other companies have a sorting machine.

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Briggs said if the county uses an out of town vendor, elections staff would have to drive ballots to the vendor to ensure ballot security.

Earlier this month, Merchant and Rae Grulkowski, the newest county commissioner, requested ballot stock from the print shop, according to multiple sources.

County staff said they wouldn’t deliver ballot stock and consulted with the Montana Secretary of State’s office and was advised not to deliver the paper, but that Merchant and Grulkowski picked up ballot stock from the print shop.

Briggs said he found about the ballot stock request via email while we was in Washington, D.C. that week.

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“That just strikes me as very odd,” Briggs said of the request.

Briggs said the county keeps ballot stock under lock and key until ballots are mailed.

He said that if he was working on the mail options directly, he would have asked for the paper specifications rather than the physical ballot stock.

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Richie Melby, communications director for SoS, told The Electric that “physical security of election materials is of paramount importance to the security of our elections, including chain of custody for ballot stock.”

The school board voted to use a mail ballot for the May school board election, though people can vote in person at the fairgrounds, as has been the case for years.

According to the SoS’s office, the county must send the mail ballot plan to the state by March 3.

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Under state law, “the plan may be amended by the election administrator at any time prior to the 35th day before election day by notifying the secretary of state in writing of any changes.”

Briggs said that deadline will likely require a short-term solution for the May election and then longer-term solutions.

During the Feb. 3 meeting, there was some discussion of adding the mail duties to the county’s print shop but there’s also been some conversation about closing the county print shop entirely.

Briggs said they need to look at the costs and capabilities before making such a decision.

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The county has had its own print shop for nearly 50 years and they’ve printed all the ballots for the last decade, plus all other county printing.

Briggs said other counties have their ballots printed by Election Systems and Software, the company that supplies the county’s voting machines, but Cascade County buys the paper stock and prints ballots.

Briggs said he’s always has concerns on whether the print shop was a good use of county money, but depending on what officials decide to do with elections, that could change.

“There’s so many moving pieces right now,” he said.

Briggs said in November that the elections office should be moved under the commission.

He said last week that he still believes that’s the appropriate action, but is currently the only commissioner interested in considering the change.