Larson says county commission monitoring election process

Updated at 5 p.m. April 10

Commissioner Jim Larson called The Electric on April 7 to discuss concerns in the County elections office.

He said that he was on the phone with a woman asking about volunteers in the elections office on April 4 when he received The Electric’s email inquiring about the same issue.

Larson said the call and email were the first he was learning about it and that he walked down the hall to the elections office after getting off the phone.

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Larson said that Jan Wenaas was in the office, but that Sandra Merchant, county clerk and recorder, was also in the office.

He said he was informed that the county human resources department had completed a background check and forms had been filed for her workers comp coverage.

Larson said the county pays for workers compensation for volunteers.

Wenaas was active last year in asking the county to eliminate mail ballots and counting ballots by hand.

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He said Wenaas and other volunteers shouldn’t be answering phones as those are union jobs and as far as stuffing envelopes, he wasn’t sure.

“We didn’t know about it. It would have been a whole lot better if everybody knew about it. It certainly looked bad,” Larson said.

He said there had been others volunteering in the elections office throughout the week and commissioners were receiving calls and emails from people on the other side of the political spectrum asking to volunteer.

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He said that the elections office told commissioners everything with the volunteers was squared away.

He said they use volunteers for the county Meals on Wheels program, “but elections is not Meals on Wheels.”

Larson said it’s not typical to have volunteers working in county offices.

Election judges are volunteers but go through training and certification, he said.

State law requires that election judges be paid at least the state or federal minimum wage, whichever is greater, for the number of hours worked during an election, plus the hours spent at the training session.

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Asked whether the elections office had assured commissioners about ballot, election and system security with volunteers in the office, Larson said it had not.

Larson said commissioners are finding out about things happening in the elections office through media reports and citizens.

Larson said that “we are watching this and monitoring it closely.”

As for the upcoming May 2 elections, Larson said, “I’m hoping they go off as planned.”

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Larson said that “we’re not getting a lot of communication” from the elections office.

He said that was one of the reasons the county held the March 31 presentation by Merchant on the election plan.

“That meeting was for her to tell us what she was going to do,” Larson said. “After that I wasn’t any more confident.”

Merchant has not responded to questions about the elections process from The Electric since March 16.

He said that as the process continues, “I can’t say that it won’t happen.”

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Larson said he thinks the May 2 election will happen on time.

Larson said that Merchant was in a tough spot coming into office, but “she hasn’t asked for much help from us.”

He said commissioners were staying away but monitoring the process.

Larson said Merchant was elected.

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“It wasn’t a mandate that’s for sure, it was by 31 votes, but she did win,” Larson said.

He said that she’s new at the elections process and perhaps could have been more prepared, “we can’t tell her what to do.”

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Larson said that Commissioner Joe Briggs had suggested last year moving the elections office out of the clerk and recorder’s office and under the commission.

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Larson said he feels that she was a single-issue candidate who ran on elections and didn’t think it was right to take the responsibility away from her without a chance at it.

“If something fell apart and she didn’t get the election done, I would look very hard at putting that under the commission and go from there,” Larson said.

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According to county staff, Merchant ordered ballots to be printed on April 7.

Merchant has said, and posted on the county website, that ballots will be available in the elections office beginning April 12 and that absentee ballots will be mailed April 17.