Meeting set to discuss election plans; SOS provides more details on upcoming elections
The Montana Secretary of State’s office responded to The Electric late Friday with more information about the upcoming local elections.
Richie Melby, communications director for SOS, told The Electric that the Cascade County elections office had submitted written plans for mail ballot elections for Great Falls Public Schools and Sun River Valley School District that are set for May 2.
Melby said that the Cascade County elections office notified the SOS on March 15 of its intent to hold the school elections at the polls instead of the originally submitted mail ballot plan due Innovative Postal Service’s closing.
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In her letters to the school districts dated March 10, Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant said she’d been in touch with the SOS.
“The Secretary of State’s Office responded that the county elections office appears to be withdrawing its previously approved mail ballot plan submission rather than amending the information set forth in the previously submitted mail ballot plan. Pursuant to statute, the Secretary of State Office’s role is limited to ‘approve, disapprove, or recommend changes to the (mail ballot) plan or amendments,'” Melby said.
Merchant’s office has not yet submitted an election plan to SOS for the library levy, Melby said, but the city did not specifically request a mail ballot for that special election.
Throughout the week, there have been limited details on how any of the upcoming local elections would proceed.
On March 17, Merchant scheduled a meeting with county commissioners for 1 p.m. March 23 in the commission chambers to discuss the election plans.
Merchant also scheduled training for this week with the company that manufactures the vote counting machine, according to county staff.
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Merchant told the school districts, as well as the city library director, that her office wouldn’t be able to hold the mail ballot elections because IPS closed and they hadn’t been able to find another vendor, among other challenges.
Melby told The Electric that the SOS’ office “provided the Cascade County elections office with a list of additional mailing service vendors that may be able to provide assistance, while reminding the county that absentee voters will require their ballots mailed.”
The majority of Cascade County voters vote absentee, or by mail, and state law requires the election administer to mail ballots to any voter who requested to be placed on the absentee list.
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Lynn Deroche, the former election supervisor who worked in the elections office for 16 years, told The Electric that about 85 percent of Cascade County voters are on the absentee list.
She said that before she left the office, she’d ordered 40,000 ballot envelopes for the GFPS election and about 35,000 for the special city election set for June.
Deroche left the county elections office in February.
She estimated that the poll election would cost GFPS another $45,000 for a total election cost of $90,000.
GFPS has had mail elections for at least the last decade at a cost of about $40,000, according to multiple officials.
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In the 2022 GFPS election, 34,508 ballots were mailed. That was a mail ballot election.
About 13,000 ballots were cast in that election.
In the 2023 November election, about 29,000 ballots were cast.
In the November 2021 municipal election, about 29,000 ballots were issued and 13,976 were returned.
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Bret Rutherford, who served as the election administrator for Yellowstone County for 12 years and is now a consultant told The Electric that since most people are on the absentee list, “even if [Merchant] legally could change to a poll election, the perceived issue is still not addressed, though the numbers may be decreased.”
Rutherford was hired by Cascade County last fall to oversee the hand recount for the clerk and recorders race, in which Merchant defeated incumbent Rina Moore by 31 votes.
Merchant filed a lawsuit attempting to stop the recount and a number of citizens, many of whom asked commissioners last year to eliminate mail ballots and voting machines, opposed hiring the consultant for the recount which was required by law due to the close margin.
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Merchant told Susie McIntyre, Great Falls Library director, in an email that it would be difficult for her office to handle a June special election and suggested they move it to the September municipal primary or the November general election.
Whether a municipal primary is required depends on the number of candidates who file for the city commission, mayor and municipal judge seats.
Commissioners voted Feb. 21 to hold the June 6 special election for the library levy and said they didn’t want that levy on the November ballot when they’re asking the voters for a public safety levy.
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Short staffing and redistricting are among the reasons Merchant has given for the strains on her office.
Rutherford told The Electric that “the fact that there is no longer any institutional knowledge remaining in the election office does not relieve the clerk from performing her duties. Also, when printing ballots for a political subdivision election, i.e. school or city election, the ballots can be printed by district rather than precinct. So the argument that redistricting would cause a problem is not legitimate.”
By Friday, a number of citizens had emailed county commissioners calling for Merchant’s removal and a group has planned a protest outside the elections office at noon on March 20.
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As a separately elected official, commissioners do not have the authority to remove her from office, nor does the Montana Secretary of State.
State law allows for a recall process, but it must be initiated by voters and can only be sought on limited grounds.
The law, MCA 2-16-603, subjects any person holding public office by election or appointment is subject to recall.
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A public official can be recalled for “physical or mental lack of fitness, incompetence, violation of the oath of office, official misconduct, or conviction of a felony offense enumerated in [state criminal code] are the only grounds for recall. A person may not be recalled for performing a mandatory duty of the office that the person holds or for not performing any act that, if performed, would subject the person to prosecution for official misconduct,” according to state law.
The recall law require that a recall petition of a local elected official be submitted to the county election administrator and the signatures be verified by the county clerk and recorder. In this case, Merchant fills both roles.
There is no apparent provision in the law for an alternative official to receive the petition when the designated official petitions should be filed with is the subject of the recall petition.
If a public official is not doing something they are supposed to be doing, voters could also file a civil action asking a court to issue a “writ of mandamus,” compelling a public official to complete the required duty, according to local attorneys.
In November, Commissioner Joe Briggs said he wanted to consider moving the elections office out of the clerk and recorders office and placing it under the commission office.
In February, Briggs told The Electric he was the only commissioner interested in making that change.
No formal action has been taken by commissioners.