Election process meeting canceled; Merchant says absentee ballots will be mailed
Sandra Merchant, Cascade County Clerk and Recorder, said in an email on March 21 that her office “will hold the upcoming May 2, 2023 school election and it will be completed as directed by the Montana Secretary of State.”
She wrote that absentee ballots would be mailed April 17.
In her email, that was also posted to the county website, she wrote that “conflicting information has been presented throughout the Cascade County community.”
Late on March 21, the county removed the election process presentation that had been scheduled for March 23 from the county calendar.
It’s not yet clear why the meeting was canceled and if or when the presentation will be rescheduled.
Merchant has not yet provided details of how the elections will work to the Great Falls Public Schools or Sun River Valley School District, according to their offices on Tuesday.
The Electric asked Merchant in a March 16 email, “will absentee ballots be mailed or no ballots are being mailed?”
Merchant has not responded to that question, or a follow up on March 20 regarding whether absentee ballots would be mailed and why that wasn’t communicated to the school districts, as well as the reasoning for switching to a poll election if her office intended to mail the bulk of ballots by absentee.
Merchant has not responded to that email.
About 87 percent of Cascade County residents vote by absentee ballot, according to multiple sources.
In her letters to GFPS and Sun River, Merchant notified officials that she was changing their mail ballot elections to poll elections.
Brian Patrick, GFPS business operations manager, told The Electric on March 20 that Merchant had responded to his request for details on the election to say her office would mail absentee ballots on April 17 but no details on the poll election.
He said he didn’t understand why her office couldn’t mail the remaining 13 percent of ballots, as requested by the GFPS board, and previously approved by the elections office and the Montana Secretary of State.
Patrick told The Electric that the last time GFPS held a poll election was in 2007 with more than 30 polling places.
Patrick said he had given Merchant a contact in the Montana Office of Public Instruction office who offers guidance on school elections, but that as of March 20, Merchant had not reached out to that resource.
In an email to The Electric on March 19, a Merchant supporter said that Merchant had come up with a solution that was approved by the SOS.
The Electric followed up with the SOS office to see if a new plan had been submitted and approved since about 4 p.m. Friday to Sunday evening.
Richie Melby, SOS communications director, said that the office had received the previously submitted mail ballot plans from the county elections office prior to the March 3 deadline.
He previously told The Electric that the SOS had been notified of the change to poll elections on March 15. Merchant told GPFS and Sun River that she had been in touch with SOS in her letters dated March 10.
Melby said that from his communication with The Electric late Friday afternoon to close of business Monday, “there has been no additional approval from the Secretary of State’s office at this time.”
Susie McIntyre, Great Falls Public Library director, library board members, library foundation board members and City Manager Greg Doyon met with Merchant on March 20 and McIntyre said they were having conversations on next steps to ensure the public is able to vote on the proposed library levy.
In a March 21 email to The Electric, Commissioner Joe Briggs said that, “as far as I am concerned, removing the election from the Clerk and Recorders office remains something that needs to happen. I proposed doing that prior to the November election  because I do not believe that a single elected official should be in charge of elections.”
He said that last fall, former clerk Rina Moore and her supporters objected to the change and he couldn’t get a second commissioner to agree to move the proposal.
“That remains the situation now. I lack a second vote to move forward,” Briggs said. “The difference now is which side of the aisle the resistance is coming from. This should be a non-partisan governance issue but unfortunately it has become a partisan and personal issue that shows no signs of reducing. The ultimate solution is to remove the election duties from the Clerk and Recorder regardless who occupies the office and place them under the commission.”
About half a dozen citizens spoke at the March 21 City Commission meeting on their concerns with Merchant’s handling of elections so far and the importance of the availability of mail ballots and conducting elections.
Several said they wanted to be sure the library levy was on the June ballot because it was important for the community to be able to vote on that proposal. Some mentioned that the levy needed to be done before the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, so that they can budget accordingly.
Jeni Dodd criticized Mayor Bob Kelly for allowing people to speak on the elections the county oversees elections.
Kelly said it’s a county office, but of high interest to the community and affects the city library levy.
He said staff is communicating with Merchant and that “she’s responding to the pressure the public has put on her.”