Locals raise concern about private citizens working in county elections office

As the deadlines for the May 2 elections near, further concerns have been raised about the county elections office operations.

On April 4, a source notified The Electric that a private citizen was manning the elections office unsupervised.

The Electric emailed Sandra Merchant, the clerk and recorder; county commissioners, the county attorney and the county human resources director about how and why that was happening around 2:30 p.m.

The Electric has not yet received a response.

By the end of the day, The Electric received emails and calls from several more citizens concerned about private citizens manning the elections office.

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One of those volunteers was identified as Jan Wenaas, who has been publicly vocal in asking the county to eliminate mail ballots and last summer signed a petition asking the county to do so.

Several citizens sent emails and submitted public information requests on April 4 asking about how and why private citizens were being allowed to work in the elections office.

On April 5, The Electric received more calls and emails that private citizens were in the elections office stuffing envelopes for the West Great Falls Flood Control and Drainage District election, also set for May 2.

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According to several sources, a form was available in the elections office for people to sign up to volunteer though it’s unclear when and by whom that form was generated.

The Electric asked county officials again on April 5 about volunteers in the election office and has not yet received a response.

A citizen told The Electric that she contacted the county human resources director about the form and was referred to the county attorney’s office.

She said she spoke to Commissioner Jim Larson on April 4 about volunteers in the elections office and he told her he was only just learning about the situation and that it was “highly irregular.”

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Larson nor Commissioner Joe Briggs have returned emails or phone calls from The Electric pertaining to volunteers in the elections office.

Richie Melby, spokesman for the Montana Secretary of State’s office, said that county offices fall under county policy.

“The elections are to be conducted by the county election offices by following the appropriate statutes and any security best practices and HR policies in place by each county. Election administrators should consult with their county attorney regarding these policies and procedures. Other elections offices may also be a resource for these types of best practices,” Melby said. “The Secretary of State’s Office has provided counties with guidance and resources related to election security stemming from 2021’s House Bill 530. That includes, but certainly isn’t limited to, the annual security assessments, security awareness trainings for county and state elections staff, and specific physical security procedures (including chain of custody). As you can imagine, only county elections employees are provided log-in information and access to the election management system.”

County election plan presentation set for March 31

The Electric asked the West Great Falls Flood district about their election several weeks ago and on April 3 received a response from Kelly Manzer, one of the board members.

Those elections are more complicated in that state law limits who can vote in the drainage district based on property ownership and need a designated agent.

Manzer said she had questioned who was sending out those letters and that Merchant thought it was sent out by the district and that she was awaiting a response from Carey Ann Haight, a deputy county attorney, before responding.

Manzer said in her April 3 email that their board secretary received a message from Merchant about a week prior asking if the district or county was sending that letter. Manzer said the board requested that the county send those letters.

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On April 3, Merchant requested those letters be printed and on April 5, volunteers were putting those letters in envelopes, according to multiple sources.

In her paperwork to property owners in the west side flood district, Merchant wrote that state law “provides that the designation shall be sent at least 25 days before the election.

The code section she cites states that “an individual qualified to vote…shall provide written proof of the individual’s qualifications to the elections administrator at least 25 days before the election.

Twenty-five days before the election is April 7.

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In her letter to those in the district, Merchant wrote that those parcels with more than one property owner need to return their designated agent form to the elections office by April 16 “so the elections office can start processing the district’s election” and that ballots will be mailed April 17.

Merchant wrote that if a designated agent form isn’t received by April 16, “the elections office can mail a ballot but cannot guarantee timely delivery of the ballot and consequently encourage the designated voting agent to deliver the completed…form to the elections office and pick up the ballot in person in order to be sure that the designated voting agent is able to timely vote the ballot.

On April 3, the Great Falls Public Schools board voted to reaffirm their request for a mail ballot election.

On April 4, Superintendent Tom Moore sent a letter to Merchant indicating the board’s action and that the district desired an in-person meeting with her and a county commissioner present.

Moore provided options for meeting times and requested that she respond in time for their April 10 board meeting.

As of 2 p.m. April 6, the county had not responded, Moore said.

As of 3:15 p.m. April 6, the district also had not received any cost estimates for the election from Merchant, according to Brian Patrick, GFPS business operations manager.

Moore publicly asked about cost estimates during Merchant’s March 31 presentation.

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Moore said Merchant told him that she’s having difficulty getting information from the state pertaining to their election.

Moore said he called the SOS to ask for the information on April 4 and asked him to email the request so they could gather that information.

Moore said he’s looking for how many registered voters for the GFPS district precincts and how many of those are requesting absentee ballots. He’s also asking SOS if the county election administration has submitted a modified plan to the election plan for the May 2 election and whether the state approved it.

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Late afternoon on April 5, Merchant emailed a corrected ballot proof to Patrick. As of 1 p.m. April 6, the county hadn’t yet started printing ballots.

According to the county print shop, their machine can print about 750 ballots per hour.

As of last week, the state said there were 30,975 absentee voters in Cascade County and 40,919 total registered voters.

It’s not yet clear how many voters are registered that fall into the GFPS district.

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Merchant said that ballots would be available in the elections office on April 12 and mailed on April 17.

The public test of the vote tabulator machines is set for 2 p.m. April 12 at Exhibition Hall. The event is posted on the Expo Park calendar within the county website, but not the main county calendar or on the elections page.

Donovan Dennis, a Great Falls native who is currently living in Germany, emailed The Electric about his efforts to confirm he’d be able to vote absentee in the upcoming school board and library levy elections.

He said he’s been registered to vote in Cascade County since he left for college in 2013 and has been living abroad for the last five years, during which time he said he’d never had an issue confirming his absentee status with the county elections office.

U.S. citizens living abroad are able to vote absentee by annually submitting the federal post card application.

Donovan told The Electric that he submitted his form on April 2 and requested confirmation of its receipt.

After two business days, he said he hadn’t received confirmation so he called the Cascade County election office.

Donovan said he spoke with Merchant and the conversation “left me rather unsettled. With ballots due to be sent out just a few weeks from now, she was unable to confirm that I would receive one. This seems to me rather unacceptable, as I am both registered to vote and legally entitled to receive a ballot. Voters from Cascade County are frequently sent all over the world (via the Air Force or National Guard), and when elections (as in Ms. Merchant’s) come down to only 30 odd votes, it’s clear that every vote matters.”

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Donovan said he spoke with Merchant and asked her why she hadn’t replied with a confirmation and was told she couldn’t confirm because the “state system was having issues.”

Donovan said he asked which state system and for how long those issues had existed. Donovan said Merchant told him the Elect Montana system had been having issues since Jan. 17, 2023.

Merchant mentioned issues with the Elect Montana system during her March 31 presentation. The Electric checked with the state, and Melby said on March 31 that he was “able to verify with our 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.”

Melby told The Electric that given her statements during the March 31 about the state system, “our office will be reaching out to inquire about how we can provide further assistance.”

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Donovan said that Merchant told him she couldn’t guarantee he’d receive his ballot and that she told him it was dependent “if the system works.”

Donovan said he called the Montana Secretary of State’s office after speaking with Merchant and staff there told him there were no problems on their end with his voter registration but that local elections are handled in the county elections office.

“I think what I was most surprised by was how clearly unaware she was of the protocols even though we are just two weeks away from ballots being sent, and that she was so quick to blame the Secretary of State’s voting software for a manufactured ‘problem’ that they had nothing to do with,” Donovan said in an email to The Electric.

The Electric submitted a Freedom of Information Act request on April 4 for all emails to and from Sandra Merchant, Devereaux Biddick, county commissioners and the county attorney pertaining to the May 2 election and the June 6 library levy election.

Carey Ann Haight, deputy county attorney, responded that she had received the request and that the county will charge for fulfilling the request.

In her email, Haight wrote, “given that each email will require my review to screen emails which are protected by law (employee privacy, HIPAA, litigation, attorney/client privilege, etc.) you will be charge for my time, which will be billed at $50 per hour. I anticipate that reviewing and screening the volume of emails and data you have requested will easily take several  hours of my time.”

The county also charges 50 cents for the first page, and 25 cents for each additional page of documents provided and Haight said that applies whether the documents are provided as a hard copy or in electronic format. The county requires that the payment be provided of the estimated cost in advance, but has not yet given The Electric an estimate of the cost for this records request.

Several other readers told The Electric they have submitted records requests in the last week and have not yet received acknowledgement of their requests.