County election official tells Sun River Valley, City of Great Falls office can’t handle mail ballot elections
Local officials for multiple agencies are scrambling to figure out how upcoming elections will be handled after receiving notices this week from Sandra Merchant, Cascade County clerk and recorder and elections administrator, that her office could not either conduct their elections by mail or at all.
Belinda Klick, business manager for the Sun River Valley School District, said she received a letter from Merchant this week that she opened March 14. It was dated March 10.
In the letter, Merchant wrote that with the closing of Innovative Postal Services, county officials have been trying to find a local company to replace them. Merchant wrote that they thought they had a replacement, which according to multiple sources was Advanced Litho Printing, but that fell through and no local companies can handle the volume of mail needed for county elections.
Merchant wrote that at this time, it is “not possible” for the county elections office to conduct the Sun River school election on May 2 by mail and would instead be a poll election.
“That threw me into a tail spin,” Klick said. “It makes me a little nervous.”
She said any agency conducting a poll election has been planning for months and that she asked Merchant for details on where the poll election would be, who would staff it, who was responsible for coordinating it and other logistical details and had not yet received a response.
She said it’s unclear if the county elections office will handle it or if she and the district will become responsible for running their own election.
The Sun River Valley school board passed a resolution in June 2022 authorizing the county elections office to conduct their elections.
In January, the Sun River school board passed a resolution calling for a mail ballot election in May for two trustee positions.
Under state statute, a governing body can call for an election no later than 70 days before election day and request a mail ballot.
The election administration determines “whether it is economically and administratively feasible to conduct the requested election by mail ballot,” which is a provision Merchant has referred to in her communication with public officials.
But, the law also requires that the election administrator respond to the request within five days, stating the reasons that request is granted or denied.
On March 14, Merchant emailed Susie McIntyre, director of the Great Falls Public Library, and said holding the special June election for the library levy is “pretty much impossible.”
The City Commission adopted a resolution calling for the election by mail ballot during their Feb. 21 meeting. The city submitted the information to the county elections office on Feb. 22.
McIntyre said she’s in discussion with city commissioners and the city attorney’s office to consider their next steps.
In her email, Merchant wrote, “I have been trying to figure out how to do the library levy on June 6 and wish I had a chance to give you my input before a date was put forward. If the levy election was on the sixth of June, ballots would have to be mailed by the 17th of May.”
McIntyre said that city and library staff had conversations with county elections staff in November, December and January about the library levy election.
She said she talked to Merchant by phone on Feb. 21 and followed up with an email asking when ballots would go out for the levy election.
McIntyre said she followed up once by email and didn’t receive a response until the March 14 email, which was the first indication the county election office couldn’t do the election.
The library board voted in December to send the levy to the ballot, though at the time they intended to put it on the May ballot. Legal staff determined it could not go on the May ballot and needed to be either a special election or on the primary ballot or the November ballot. City Commissioners had indicated they didn’t want the library on the same ballot as the public safety levy.
Whether the city holds a primary for the municipal election is dependent on the number of candidates who file for the available seats, including the mayor, commissioners and the new municipal judge position.
In February, the City Commission discussed the library levy election in two meetings, one on first reading setting the public hearing for Feb. 21 and the public hearing on Feb. 21.
In her email, Merchant wrote, “with redistricting, the new system and everything else that is going on this spring, the June date will be pretty much impossible for us to be ready to hold another election. As Mr. Dennis said in his letter, the levy may be called as a special election or put on the primary or general ballot. I believe the best way to get this done well would be to hold it with the primary election, which would be more feasible financially for the county as well as administratively for our office. We are short staffed right now and are in the process of hiring but all staff are new and there are several other things happening at the same time as mentioned above. Moving the election to a later date will ensure an efficient and accurate election.”
The law does not appear to give the election administrator authority to move election dates or deny an election once a governing body has properly passed a resolution calling for an election.
County Attorney Josh Racki said his office gives guidance when requested to the clerk and recorder/election official on interpretation of state law and how it applies to their duties.
His office “has provided such guidance to the Clerk and Recorder on the library mill election. It is up to each independently elected official to make decisions about the operations of their office. Such decisions are independent and outside the scope and authority of the CCAO,” Racki told The Electric.
He said his office was not consulted by the clerk and recorder’s office about the Sun River Valley school district election.
As of March 15, the Great Falls Public Schools district had not been notified of any changes to their planned May mail ballot election.
The GFPS district filed the same paperwork and met the same timelines as the Sun River Valley school district.
A private citizen went to the elections office on March 14 to ask about mail ballots for the school board election and was told the details weren’t finalized. She said the elections office told her that absentee ballots for the GFPS election would be available for voter pickup on April 12.
Merchant and County Commissioner Joe Briggs had not responded to The Electric’s inquires by 7 p.m. March 15.