GFPS election also going to polls; Merchant says library levy email was a “misunderstanding”

A day after telling the Great Falls Public Library director that she didn’t think the elections office could handle a June 6 special election, Sandra Merchant, followed up to say it was a misunderstanding.

Merchant, the county clerk and recorder, who was elected in November, emailed Susie McIntyre, the library director, around 7 p.m. March 15 and wrote, “I believe there may have been a misunderstanding about my email from yesterday. I am not refusing to do the library mill election.”

Her March 14 email stated it would be “pretty much impossible for us be ready to hold another election,” and suggested that the city move their library levy to the primary or general election.

The City Commission voted Feb. 21 to hold the special June 6 election by mail ballot for the library levy.

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Her follow up email states, “I was trying to explain to you that with IPS, our mailing service, closing- among other things like redistricting due to the 2020 census and being short staffed- June 6 will be difficult for us to do an election to the standards we would like. As Mr. Dennis said, the levy election can be run as a special election, or with the primary or general. Because of the current circumstances I was suggesting that it may be better to move the date to the primary. I was hoping to open a dialogue with you on the subject. I am planning on running the mill levy election but June 6th will be a very difficult time. I am so sorry for the misunderstanding, and I hope we can have a discussion on how to best handle the election.”

McIntyre told The Electric that she’s working with the library board and city officials to determine their next steps.

She said they’ll do their best to work with Merchant to move forward and hold the election.

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“It needs to be done correctly and we’re committed to doing that,” McIntyre said.

Merchant also notified Sun River Valley School District this week that she was changing their May 2 school board election from a mail ballot to a poll election.

The Electric sent a list of questions to Merchant on March 15.

She responded on March 16 and said that “the library did not request a mail ballot election. The closing of our mailing service, IPS, is why the election had to be changed to a polling place election instead of mail.”

The Electric said, “my understanding is that both school districts and the city notified your office well within their legal deadlines about the mail elections and they were not denied by your office to hold a mail election within the timeline, as stipulated under MCA. Why did it take so long to make the determination?”

Merchant said, “the determination changed with the closing of IPS.”

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IPS notified the county of its closing in mid-January.

Merchant and County Commissioners met with the IPS owner on Feb. 3.

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.

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Great Falls Public Schools board voted to have a mail ballot election during a November meeting and notified the elections office, which granted their request, according to county documents.

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.

The City Commission voted on Feb. 21 to have a special election for the library levy and notified the elections office on Feb. 22.

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Merchant said the city did not request a mail ballot for that election so it would be a poll election.

The Electric asked “if the elections office is changing the GFPS election to a poll election, when will you notify GFPS officials?”

Merchant said, “there was a letter sent by email on March 10 to notify them, followed up with a mail letter.”

The Electric asked Brian Patrick, business operations director for GFPS, about that email on March 16 and he said he found it in his junk folder. He said it may have been filtered because Merchant had the wrong address for another GFPS employee copied on the email.

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In the letter, Merchant informed Patrick that she was changing the GFPS election from a mail ballot to a poll election.

She wrote, “with the closing of IPS mailing services, the Cascade County Elections Office has been trying to find a
local company that could replace them. After we met last Friday, we received a call to inform us that the company we had been working with had decided not to sort and mail our ballots for us. There are no local companies that can handle the volume of mail involved in a mail election. Since our circumstances have changed drastically in the last month, at this time it is not possible for us to hold a mail election. I have been in touch with the Secretary of State’s office and according to MCA 13-19-203, it is not “economically or administratively feasible” to conduct the May 2, 2023 school elections by mail. We will be holding a poll election on May 2, 2023.”

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The MCA provision Merchant cited in her letter states: “Even if a request has not been received from the governing body concerned, the election administrator may conduct any election authorized by 13-19-104 under this chapter if the election administrator determines that a mail ballot election is the most economically and administratively feasible way of conducting the election in question.

(2) If the election administrator decides to conduct an election pursuant to subsection (1), the election administrator shall prepare a written plan as provided in 13-19-205 and forward a copy to the governing body concerned, together with a written statement informing the governing body of the decision to conduct the election by mail ballot, the reasons for the decision, and the right of the governing body to object under 13-19-204.”

The section about economic and administrative feasibility of mail ballots is MCA 13-19-202 and requires that the election administrator notify the requesting governing body of the decision on a mail ballot within five days of receiving the request.

Patrick said he hadn’t heard anything else from Merchant regarding the details of how a poll election for the district will work.

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During the March 15 GFPS board budget committee meeting, Bill Bronson, school board member, said that in his years as a city commissioner, the poll election was “far more expensive” and that was one of the reasons the city went to the mail ballot in an effort to save the taxpayer money.

Merchant said the school district ballots will be printed on time and that the county print shop will print the ballots. She said there was an issue with the envelopes since they were printed with an IPS number that the county is working on fixing.

On March 16, Belinda Klick, the clerk at the Sun River Valley School District, said she had a voicemail from Devereaux Biddick in the county elections office asking who her election judges were for the election.

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Klick said she didn’t have any election judges because she doesn’t run their elections, the county elections office does.

Klick said that after receiving a letter from Merchant on March 14, notifying her that their election would be changed from a mail ballot to a poll election, she contacted Merchant to ask how that would work.

The Electric asked Merchant, “how will the poll elections work? Where will they be? Who will staff them?”

Merchant said, “we plan to hold a briefing for the commissioners and the public in the next couple of weeks to present the plan for these elections.”

Election plans for each local election has to be submitted to the Montana Secretary of State and the school district election plans were due March 3.

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.”

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Merchant said she has notified the SOS. The Electric asked the SOS for confirmation on March 15 but has not yet received a response.

GFPS’ Patrick told The Electric on March 14 that he had given Merchant a contact at the Montana Office of Public Instruction who works extensively with school district elections to get information.

Patrick said that as of March 16, Merchant had not reached out to that contact and that the OPI official would reach out to Merchant.

Last year, Merchant was associated with a group of people who asked the county to eliminate mail ballots and require all voters to vote in person. They also asked that the county count all ballots by hand and stop using the vote counting machines that have been in use in Cascade County for years.

The group made claims of voter fraud and that the machines could be hacked.

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Last year, Jeff Mangan, then Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, told The Electric that since he was appointed to the position in 2017, there have been seven voter fraud complaints statewide. One was referred back to the local government for adjudication and one is currently in court in Phillips County. The others were unsubstantiated, he said.

Mangan said there hasn’t been a single formal or informal complaint related to voter or election fraud from Cascade County in his time as COPP.

Mangan left office late last year.

In her email to McIntyre on March 14, Merchant wrote that the office was short staffed.

Lynn Deroche left the elections office on Feb. 10 after 16 years working in the office. She was the elections supervisor when she left the office for another job.

Before the left, the county posted for an election specialist position. An employee who’d been working in the elections office for the last year applied for the position, but another employee in the Clerk and Recorder’s office told her she probably wouldn’t get the job and she pulled her application, Deroche said.

The county received a few applications, but did not include Deroche in the interviews.

The county hired Devereaux Biddick for the position.

Deroche said county officials had to kick Biddick out of the election count board last fall because she was recording the count machine and tech when he was working on the machine, in violation of the rules that prohibit phones and after signing an agreement that she would follow those rules.

Biddick was part of the group last summer asking the county to eliminate mail ballots and count all ballots by hand.

Merchant told The Electric on March 16 that her office intends to use the vote counting machines for the upcoming elections.

Deroche told The Electric that for about a month, Merchant kept her out of the loop. Shortly before her scheduled last day, Deroche said that Merchant asked her to explain the election process. Deroche told her a few days wasn’t enough time to learn everything and later received a letter relieving her of her services a few days before her last day, Deroche said.