Merchant gives presentation, public still has questions

About 200 people attended a meeting March 31 during which Sandra Merchant, Cascade County clerk and recorder, gave a roughly 20 minute slide show presentation to County Commissioners.

The presentation did not include information about how many voters are registered absentee, how much the poll elections are estimated to cost, how many staffers or election judges are needed, among other specific details.

During about an hour and a half of questions from the public, Commissioner Rae Grulkowski, who is the commission chair currently, told several speakers that their questions weren’t relevant to the presentation.

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Those questions included the cost of a poll election versus mail ballot election, the public test of the tabulating machine, the rationale for a poll election when an estimated 80-87 percent of voters in Cascade County are absentee, whether Merchant believes in mail ballots, the process of removing an elected official, why a private citizen was allowed in a training session from the vote tabulator machine vendor and the process to clean voter rolls.

Merchant said at the beginning of the meeting, that she was nervous and “public speaking is not at the top of my list of favorite things to do.”

She said that the meeting was intended to offer “full transparency” and “clean up confusion about the changes.”

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Merchant said that Innovative Postal Services, or IPS, closing was the start of the challenges for her office to handle the upcoming May 2 school elections, as well as the Fort Shaw Irrigation District and the West Great Falls Flood District, and the June 6 library levy special election.

Merchant said she “immediately” started looking for other vendors to handle the election mail.

She said that she had conversations with a local vendor that initially agreed to provide the service but then “unexpectedly” on March 3 decided not to. At that point, Merchant didn’t name the local vendor, but later in the meeting, when asked, said it was Advanced Litho.

She said at that point, she looked at using out-of-town vendor, but said that would require two trips to another town and staff time to ensure ballot security.

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She said that because of that she decided to handle election mail in-house but didn’t detail how the election mail would be sorted, since the county currently lacks that capability or how they’d be transported to the post office.

Merchant said ballots would be printed by the county’s print shop.

March 23 was the deadline for candidates to file for school board elections and March 30 was the deadline for them to withdraw and for write-in candidates, though their names wouldn’t appear on the ballot.

As of March 31, multiple county sources said the ballot had not been formatted.

Merchant said that redistricting, the new state election software system and lack of staff were also challenges facing her office.

Those issues are facing every election office in the state.

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Merchant said that handling election mail would be a cost savings to the county.

During a Feb. 3 meeting with Merchant, IPS and county commissioners, Commissioner Joe Briggs said that IPS services had been a considerable cost savings to the county over the years.

During her March 31 presentation, Merchant said that mail elections have more cost because they have to print more envelopes and postage.

She did not give a number on the cost difference for the May 2 election of a mail ballot versus poll election.

She said she didn’t know the number of registered absentee voters, or total register voters, to determine how many more ballots would need to be mailed.

Merchant said that while making these decisions, there was a third party candidate considering running and so she’s need additional election judges.

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Commissioner Rae Grulkowski asked Merchant to explain the 40,000 envelopes already printed that had the IPS postal permit number on them.

Merchant said that, “when IPS closed that stamp is no good.”

Merchant said the county print shop couldn’t make that correction. The county print shop falls under Merchant’s office and authority.

Merchant said that a local print office could make the correction.

The Electric asked earlier this week about that change, the cost and why the print shop couldn’t do it, but received no response from the county.

Denise Riggin, owner of IPS, said that her postal permit was valid through August.

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Briggs asked Merchant about her mention of a third party affecting the election since school board elections are nonpartisan.

He said he was “very confused by your comments in that regard.”

Merchant said the law required her to have election judges from multiple parties.

Briggs said, “I think that is not correct in factual information.”

He asked Merchant the difference in pieces of mail for absentee voters versus non-absentee voters.

Merchant said that about 87 percent are absentee and so 13 percent are not absentee.

“From what I can find in Elect Montana,” she said of the state’s election software system.

Later in the meeting, when a citizen asked, she said she didn’t know where the 87 percent number came from.

Merchant said the last time she looked, the difference was 8,000 to 10,000 voters.

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Briggs said that manning is different for a poll election versus a mail election and asked Merchant what her staffing plan is for election day.

Merchant said that election judges have to be at the Exhibition Hall in Expo Park for election day anyway and at drop boxes, but did not give a definitive answer on how many staff or election judges were required for a poll versus mail ballot election.

“I think you’re misunderstanding my question,” Briggs said. “Your staffing levels are very different.”

Merchant said they need election judges to help prep ballots for the tabulator machine and the process, but still did not give a number of staff or election judges required. She said a lot of people were needed for the process, otherwise it would take forever to count ballots.

Briggs said, “I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m very well aware of what goes into the process.”

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Elliot Merja asked about the Fort Shaw Irrigation District election and said they had some questions about the process.

Merchant said she will have to talk to their board about those issues.

Merja said he was the chairman of their board.

Merchant said she usually deals with his wife.

Merja said it’s not his wife.

Sharla Merja is the secretary of the irrigation district board and working on their election, but is not married to the board chair.

Sharla Merja said she asked Merchant and her office about the status of their election and has no clarity on the situation.

Sharla Merja said that earlier this week, Devereaux Biddick, a county election employee, called to ask who prints their ballots and how their process works.

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Sharla Merja said that state law requires the county election administrator to run their election.

“I don’ think they understand,” she told The Electric after the meeting.

Jasmine Taylor, a local political activist who has run for several positions in recent years as a Democrat, asked how Merchant was justifying the change to a poll election, while other elections officers were facing the same challenges, but “you failed to plan and effectively perform your duties.”

Superintendent Tom Moore of Great Falls Public Schools said that everyone was caught off guard by IPS closing, but the district had offered support and resources and contacts for experts on school elections.

Moore said that GFPS staff had followed up, but not heard much from Merchant or her office until they were notified that Merchant was changing it to a poll election.

Brian Patrick, GFPS business operations manager, told The Electric they were not consulted by Merchant’s office about the costs for the election, which the district is responsible for paying at least a portion of.

Moore said they had an agreement with the county for a mail ballot election and understands there are options under state law not to do a mail ballot.

He said that he started with GFPS in 2007, which was the last time they did a poll election.

Moore said that the school board was petitioned to move to the mail ballot because it was cheaper and more efficient.

Moore said the district budgets about $42,000 for elections and asked Merchant if she was anticipating additional cost for the district for the change to a poll election.

Merchant said she was trying to minimize costs, but didn’t give a dollar amount.

Moore asked if she had “any idea at all” and Merchant said she could get figures for GFPS and discuss it.

Moore said the taxpayers expect them to work collaboratively and that they have for years, but it “doesn’t feel quite like that in this current situation.”

He said that in his 16 years here, he’s never heard anyone question the integrity of elections in Cascade County.

The school board has called a special meeting for 5:30 p.m. April 3 to discuss their election.

Sun River Valley School District only had two candidates for three board seats, so those candidates win by acclamation, under the law, and they are able to cancel their election.

Whitney Olson, chair of the Great Falls Public Library board, asked Merchant whether she was planning a poll or mail ballot election for their June 6 levy election since they still hadn’t received a definitive answer.

The city did not specifically request a mail ballot election for their levy.

Merchant said she would do what the board asked.

Olsen asked what her plan was and Merchant didn’t give a specific answer. Olsen asked what the cost would be for a citywide poll election.

Merchant said she’d need Elect Montana to work to get the information.

Olsen asked what the polling places would be for their election. Merchant said Expo Park was the only polling place she knew of for the city.

Olsen asked Merchant to clarify costs and what the library would be responsible for.

Merchant said she could get that information.

Olsen asked when they could expect that information. Merchant said she didn’t have a date off the top of her head.

Jane Weber, former county commissioner, asked about Merchant’s duties to rural school district for the election.

Merchant said they were having trouble with Elect Montana but were working on it.

The Electric asked the Montana Secretary of State’s office if they’d heard of the concerns from the Cascade County elections office, or if other counties had expressed similar problems.

Richie Melby, spokesman for the Montana Secretary of State, said that their office had been working with all counties to answer questions, provide guidance and assist with their local elections.

Melby said he verified with their elections department that “all Cascade County service tickets have been responded to, so we were surprised to learn about these concerns. Our office has provided counties with every resource to run their election. The Secretary of State’s Office has been, is, and will continue to provide counties with assistance.”

He said that “given these recent statements, our office will be reaching out to inquire about how we can provide further assistance.”

Weber asked about the public test of the vote tabulator that she said was scheduled for Monday.

Grulkowski said it wasn’t relevant to the presentation.

Weber said it was part of the election process and is a public event and requires a printed ballot to run through the machine.

Merchant said it wasn’t pertinent to the discussion.

Multiple other county sources have also told The Electric that the public test is scheduled for Monday but it’s not on the county website or calendar or publicly noticed to media.

State law requires the public test no more than 30 days before an election to certify the tabulator is working properly.

The Electric asked Merchant, county commissioners and the county attorney about the public test in an March 29 email and did not receive a response.

Noelle Johnson asked Merchant when she took office.

Merchant said Jan. 3.

Johnson thanked Merchant for her work so far and said, “you’ve had a lot thrown at you.”

One man asked why Merchant’s office couldn’t mail the additional ballots if they were already printing roughly 80 percent that were absentee.

Merchant said she’d have to get the exact numbers from the Elect Montana system.

Sheree Brownlee asked why someone who had publicly expressed an interest in eliminating mail ballots should be in her position.

Grulkowski cut off her question, to which she said, “well I could ask the same question of you but we’re talking about elections.”

Dennis Granlie said that he wanted to take Merchant up on her pledge of transparency and and asked the estimated cost of the election that’s in about a month.

Merchant and Grulkowski looked at each other and Grulkoswksi said it was a repetitive question.

Granlie then asked how many precincts there are. Again Merchant and Grulkowski looked at each other. Grulkowski said “that may be relevant.”

Merchant said that there are 23 precincts.

Granlie asked if each precinct needed three judges at the polling place on election day, to which Merchant said yes.

One speaker asked if Merchant was planning on using the election judges who were trained last year, as their certifications are good for two years.

She said she had contracted them.

He said he was an election judge last year and hadn’t been contacted.

Merchant said that the county print shop will print the ballots and envelopes but can’t sort and mail, which she said was her reasoning for not doing a full mail ballot election.

She did not say how her office would handle sorting and mailing the absentee ballots.

Pete Fontana asked about the cost of the election and Merchant looked at Grulkowski, who said it was repetitive.

Fontana asked for a copy of the signed agreement between GFPS and the county for a mail ballot agreement.

“I don’t know that we can get that today,” Grulkowski said.

The documents are available here.

Julie Bass, who signed a petition last summer asking the county to eliminate mail ballots, asked if the Montana Secretary of State formally trained Merchant for the job.

Merchant said no.

Christi Jacobsen is the secretary and also a Republican.

Some in the audience asked about the relevance of the question to the presentation and Grulkowski said it was a gray area.

Bass said since elections are planned it advance, it was the fault of the former county clerk for not handling all of the details, which prompted a brief shouting match between Bass, Jasmine Taylor and others in the audience.

A called on Zoom asked Merchant about the private citizen who attended the training with ES&S, the county’s election machine vendor, with Merchant and Devereaux Biddick, a county elections employee.

Grulkowski said it wasn’t relevant or part of the presentation.

The Electric was also told about the private citizen who attended the training and asked Merchant, commissioners and the county attorney about it in a March 29 email. None of them responded.

Beth Cummings, who also signed the petition to eliminate mail ballots last summer, asked if the county had a procedure manual for elections.

Merchant said no.

State law dictates elections activities and the Montana Secretary of State has a section of resources for election officials.

Another citizen asked about the process to clean up voter rolls, which Grulkowski said wasn’t relevant to the presentation.