Release of election details delayed; library says levy election will be June 6
The meeting planned for March 23 on the plan for upcoming local elections was removed from the Cascade County calendar around 6 p.m. March 21.
Neither Great Falls Public Schools or Sun River Valley School District were notified of the change initially.
Brian Patrick, GFPS business operations manager, emailed Sandra Merchant, county clerk and recorder, and her employee Deveraux Biddick early March 22 to get an update, to which Biddick replied, “Sandra has tested positive with the China Virus – Covid-19,” and that commissioners had canceled the meeting.
In an email to The Electric, County Commissioner Jim Larson wrote, “we were waiting for the 23rd meeting to find out the plans for the elections.”
County Attorney Josh Racki told The Electric on March 22 that, “Sandra was going to lay that out this Thursday. I have not reviewed the complete plan and it is Sandra’s plan to discuss with the public and schools.”
Commissioner Rae Grulkowski, chairman, wrote to The Electric that, “the presentation is postponed until it can be rescheduled upon [Merchant’s] expected return next week and we refer the public to our website for current information regarding upcoming elections.”
The county elections webpage was updated sometime in recent days that absentee ballots would be mailed April 17.
The page also states that ballots for poll voters will be available in the elections office beginning April 12.
On March 21, Merchant sent a release stating absentee ballots would be mailed April 17 and that the school elections would be “completed as directed by the Montana Secretary of State.”
Richie Melby, communications director for the SOS, told The Electric last week that school elections “fall outside the scope of the Secretary of State’s Office. The office recommended the county elections office work with its county attorney’s office if it has further questions or seeks further guidance.”
In a March 15 email, County Attorney Josh Racki told The Electric, “the CCAO does assist the county’s elected officials with interpretation of Montana law and how that law applies to their offices/duties. The CCAO 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 said in that email that Merchant’s office never asked for guidance on the Sun River Valley school election.
Susie McIntyre, Great Falls Public Library director, said in a March 23 email that Merchant has confirmed the library levy election will occur on June 6.
“[Merchant] has not yet determined whether the June 6 election will be ‘mail only’ or a polling place election with absentee ballots and early voting,” McIntyre said. “If it is a polling place election, voters will have the option of voting early in person, receiving an absentee ballot in the mail, or voting on election day. Currently, the vast majority of voters in our area are already on the absentee list. These voters will receive a ballot in the mail, if the election is a polling place election. [Merchant] is currently working with several mailing services to handle the demand for mailing ballots (which will be necessary under any scenario) under the mailing deadlines provided by law.”
McIntyre wrote that library staff and board members are “grateful to the public servants who make elections possible. We encourage public officials in our county to continue to provide the public with as much information as possible regarding the upcoming election.”
McIntyre, library board members and the city manager met with Merchant about the library levy election. They asked that Merchant provide a definitive answer on whether her office would hold the election by 5 p.m. March 21, according to an email McIntyre sent to library board members and city commissioners that was shared with The Electric.
At 4:22 p.m. March 21, Merchant emailed McIntyre and wrote, “Thank you, and your team, for meeting with me on Monday. I understand the importance of this library mill levy election and will hold the election on June 6, 2023. I look forward to having another meeting sometime in the very near future to further iron out the details.”
McIntyre told the library board commissioners that she has also asked for clarification on the details for the election as well as
- will the election be held as a mail-ballot only election or as a poll plus absentee ballot election?
- regardless of the election type, for those voters who will receive a ballot in the mail (absentee or all mail), what day will those ballots be mailed?
Merchant told The Electric last week that the county print shop would print the ballots and envelopes for the school board elections, but it’s not yet clear if her office has secured a new postage permit from the U.S. Postal Service.
The county had previously used the nonprofit postage permit number from Innovative Postal Services, which sorted ballots by zip code for the county at a savings. The county does not have the equipment to handle sorting ballots, commissioners and staff said during a February meeting with IPS.
Kim Frum, a spokeswoman for the USPS, told The Electric that “the Postal Service is responsible for processing, transporting, and delivering the nation’s election mail. Election officials are responsible for determining the extent to which the mail is used for participating in elections, the class of mail used for sending election materials to voters, the design of ballots or return envelopes, counting ballots, or setting state election deadlines including dates to request (if required by the state) or return a ballot.”
Frum said in a March 21 email that “the Postal Service is reaching out to the Cascade County’s election officials and looks forward to a successful election in May.”
On March 22, Biddick told The Electric that Merchant would have to respond next week about whether her office had secured a postage permit.
The Electric was provided a copy of a petition submitted to county officials last summer that Biddick signed.
The petition states, “The U.S. was formed with the notion that the government exists to protect and empower its citizens. This responsibility extends to protecting the security of elections, which can be done only when the government, media and citizens work together to ensure it. Common sense transparency, simplicity and decentralization are the hallmarks of secure and trustworthy elections. Non-transparent and complex centralized election systems run by private corporations are not. Many Americans have died for this right to have legitimate elections, from our War for Independence to the Civil War, to the 15th Amendment and Civil Rights Movement guaranteeing African Americans the right to vote. In order to prevent election fraud and ensure the transparency of our elections, electronic and centrally controlled voting must be banned.”
In their petition, signers asked the County Commission to:
- ban all electronic voting equipment, excluding Automark machines
- voting be allowed with valid identification only
- ban mail-in ballots except for overseas, military, disabled or other qualified persons
- ballot turn in on election day only, with one day counting
- create smaller precincts for voting and counting
- clean voter rolls by requiring all qualified county residents to reregister
In late February, the county commission voted to lease a mail sorting machine to handle daily mail.
Commissioner Joe Briggs told The Electric in late February that the mailing machine they’re leasing, “is used for elections in smaller counties but lacks the volume capacity to be used here for elections. It is intended to handle the daily mail only. The solution for election mailing is still being worked on. We have not received any updates on the election processing from Sandra, but I do know she has been in contact with Advanced Litho.”
The machine is recommended for businesses processing 100-plus pieces of mail daily, is equipped with an automatic feeder which can feed 95 letters per minute, an automatic envelope sealer, and provides programming of up to 100 departmental accounts with reporting, according to the county.
The GFPS election requires about 40,000 ballots, plus 40,000 secrecy envelopes and 40,000 outer envelopes.
On March 10, Merchant sent letters to GFPS and Sun River Valley schools indicating the plan to use a local printing company had fallen through and they weren’t able to conduct a mail ballot election.
State law requires that absentee ballots be mailed.
About 87 percent of voters in Cascade County vote absentee, according to multiple sources.
Filing for school board elections ends March 23.
There are two seats open on for the Sun River Valley School District and as of March 22, there were two candidates, meaning it’s possible that election could be canceled and those candidates could win by acclamation.
There are three seats on the the GFPS ballot for three-year terms.
The school board members who are up this year are Bill Bronson, Kim Skornogoski and Amie Thompson.
The incumbents have filed, as have Rodney Meyers and Tony Rosales.