GFPS board votes to reaffirm request for mail ballot election

During a special meeting on April 3, the Great Falls Public Schools board voted unanimously to formally request that the Cascade County elections office comply with the initial plan for a mail ballot election.

GFPS officials said they invited Sandra Merchant, county clerk and recorder, to the meeting but that she told them she had other commitments.

During the meeting, Brian Patrick, GFPS’ director of business operations, said that he and Superintendent Tom Moore met with Merchant, her employee Deveraux Biddick and County Commissioner Joe Briggs on March 3 to discuss the school board election.

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During that meeting, Patrick said that county officials said the May 2 school board election would be held as planned and the impact of the Innovative Postal Services closure was discussed.

Patrick said during the meeting with county officials that he would share school election resources in the form or a webinar and contact information for a Montana Office of Public Instruction expert on school elections.

Patrick sent that information to Merchant on March 4.

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On March 10, Merchant sent an email to GFPS notifying them her office would not be able to hold a mail ballot election and was switching to a poll election.

The email had a wrong email address for a GFPS employee and Patrick said the email went to his junk folder and he didn’t see it until The Electric asked him on March 16 if he’d received the email Merchant said she sent.

Around that time, Patrick contacted the OPI election expert who indicated Merchant had not contacted her.

County election plan presentation set for March 31

The OPI official contacted Merchant the next day and in a follow-up phone conversation, the OPI official indicated to Patrick that “her reception by Ms. Merchant was chilly at best,” according to the GFPS agenda report.

Patrick told the board during their April 3 meeting that he had emailed Merchant that morning about the costs to the district for a poll election and by their 5:30 p.m. board meeting, had not received a response.

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Moore had also asked Merchant for estimated cost information during her March 31 presentation on the election plan.

Patrick said during the April 3 board meeting that they asked the Montana School Board Association for guidance, which suggested they reiterate their request for a mail ballot election, as originally required.

Bill Bronson, school board member, moved to approve the formal request of complying with GFPS’ original plan and also aske that district officials provide copies of the request to the county commission and in person to Merchant.

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Kim Skornogoski, school board member, said that she attended the March 31 county meeting on the election plan and it was missing details on printing ballots, testing voting machines, training for judges and the cost to GFPS.

“Those are some of the details we are looking for,” she said.

She asked if there’s recourse for GFPS is the county misses deadlines, particularly mailing ballots on April 17.

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Skornogoski said she’s hoping they can get some of those details, “not just for our election, but for the next four or five elections.”

Bronson, a lawyer, said he attended the March 31 meeting and, “I had sincerely hoped that presentation would answer a lot of questions,” but that it did not.

Discussing the legal issues, he said that when all factors are considered and his experience over the years as a city commissioner and in working with voting districts, a mail ballot election “is the most desirable option.”

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He said that it is “pretty obvious to me, there can be no argument whatsoever,” that the district made a timely request and met all legal obligations within the timeline for their requested mail ballot election.

Bronson said the election administrator has the right under statute to make adjustments if circumstances change, but that decision can’t be arbitrary or capricious and that the election administrator should provide sufficient evidence of the reasoning.

He said that Merchant’s letter to GFPS included “no appropriate details” for how she’d conduct a poll election. “What we have been offered by the current elections office is not a plan within the letter and spirit of the law.”

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Paige Turoski, school board member, said that differences are to be expected when public offices have new leadership, but that Merchant’s office hasn’t provided details of the financial impact to GFPS for the election change.

She said it “would have been very considerate” of Merchant’s office to provide information to GFPS but since they hadn’t, “it’s just too many question marks.”

Rina Moore, the previous county clerk and recorder, told the board that according to information she received from the state, there are 40,919 active voters in Cascade County and of those, 30,975 are registered absentee.

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She told the board that over her time, about 16 years, in office, mail ballot elections had better participation and were “way more cost effective.”

Jasmine Taylor, a local political activist, asked if the district had any recourse to recoup the additional costs of a poll election.

Brian Patrick, the GFPS business operations manager, said “we’re in uncharted territory, we’ve never been in this position before.”

He said if there’s significant additional cost, they’ll consult their attorney for potential legal action.

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According to GFPS, the mail ballot election has typically cost about $40,000.

Lynn Deroche, the former elections supervisor in the county office, told The Electric last month that the poll election would likely cost the district, and taxpayers, an estimated additional $45,000.

Skornogoski said that’s about the salary for a teacher and not something the district can take lightly as a decision being made in contrast to their specific request for a mail ballot election.

She said she hopes they have more answers by the April 10 board meeting.

Turoski said that if Merchant’s office again denies their request for a mail ballot election, “I hope we’re not stuck with a big price tag.”