Merchant meets with GFPS, provides election cost estimate; locals form committee to protect elections

Great Falls Public Schools officials met with county officials on April 10 to discuss their upcoming school board election.

Superintendent Tom Moore said he and Brian Patrick, GFPS business operations manager, met with Sandra Merchant, county clerk and recorder, and County Commissioner Rae Grulkowski on April 10. County attorneys were also in the meeting.

Moore told the GFPS school board during their April 10 meeting that GFPS also have several conversations with the Montana Secretary of State’s office about the situation over the last week.

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Patrick said during the school board meeting that they “covered ground that should have been covered way back on March 10,” and asked why they weren’t consulted about the change since the district would foot the bill.

He said they also discussed the communication that was happening or not happening, and tried to clarify what would happen between now and election day, as well as post-election since the canvas is also important to certifying the election.

Moore said he asked why they couldn’t do the mail ballot election and that Merchant said the deadline to switch back to that had now passed.

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He said that Merchant told them again that it wasn’t economically or administratively feasible because of IPS closing, hiring of judges, reprinting envelopes, mail costs as she had stated during her March 31 presentation.

Moore said Merchant has guaranteed she’ll meet the deadlines for the May 2 school board election.

Moore said that voters can check their registration status and whether they’re registered as absentee on the state website.

Moore said that Merchant told them there was about 10,000 difference between absentee and non-absentee voters.

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According to information provided to the GFPS board during their April 10 meeting, the Montana Secretary of State’s office told Moore on April 6 that there were 40,919 registered voters in the GFPS district and of those, 30,975 were registered absentee.

On Friday, Merchant ordered about 47,000 ballots to be printed, according to county staffers.

The Electric emailed Merchant on April 11 about the additional ballots and printing costs for the GFPS election, but has not yet received a response.

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In the 2022 GFPS school board election, 34,508 ballots were mailed. That was a mail ballot election.

About 13,000 ballots were cast in that election.

Kim Skornogoski, school board member, asked if they thought Merchant understood the staffing requirements for a poll election.

Patrick said he asked if her office could handle the 10,000 people not voting absentee and that Merchant told them they’d be able to do so.

Patrick and Moore said that Merchant gave them an estimate of the cost, based on past election invoices to GFPS, of $41,821.01.

Bill Bronson, school board member, said those invoices would have been based on past mail ballot elections.

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The total cost in 2022 was $30,543.63 and in 2021, the total cost to was $43,469.06. In 2022, GFPS shared some election costs with the Great Falls Transit District, which also had an election on the ballot.

Merchant’s estimate provided to GFPS does not include the cost of printing ballots and calls for 31,000 ballots.

The estimate for 2023 also does not appear to account for reprinting the postal permit number on 40,000 envelopes that Merchant mentioned during the March 31 meeting. Her estimate calls for 31,000 of each type of envelope.

Advanced Litho did that reprint job and The Electric has asked the county for that cost or agreement and has not received a response.

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In 2022, that cost to the district for 20,000 ballots was $4,000; in 2021, the cost for printing 38,000 ballots was $7,600, according to county documents provided to GFPS.

Her estimate includes $5,270 for postage for 31,000 ballots.

In 2022, that cost was $4,377.59 for 20,000 ballots; in 2021, that cost was $5,243.78 for 36,164 ballots.

The estimate for the May 2 GFPS election includes $10,500 for 60 election judges.

In 2022, that cost was $1,062.50 and in 2021, that cost was $1,575 for nine judges.

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Merchant’s estimate for 2023 also does not include on-site support from ES&S, the vendor for the vote tabulating machines. That was included in each of the last two elections for $2,500 in 2022 and $4,675 in 2021.

Moore said that when he was in the elections office on April 4, there was no one in the office working and when the were there April 10, “the room was packed with people working on ballots.”

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Moore said that they’ll follow up to ensure ballots are mailed April 17 and they’re hoping communication with the election office improves.

“I’m going to assume that’s the truth and that happens and if it doesn’t, then we’ll deal with it then,” Moore said of Merchant’s office meeting the mailing deadline for absentee ballots.

Patrick said that if any voter thinks they should receive an absentee ballot but doesn’t, they should call or visit the elections office.

During the April 11 County Commission meeting, several people commented on their concerns for the upcoming elections.

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Jane Weber, former county commissioner, said that she was concerned about Devereaux Biddick working in the elections office as she was evicted from the election hall in November for filming a technician clearing a jam on the vote tabulator machine, in violation of the rules and a signed affidavit to follow those rules.

Weber said that several of the people volunteering in the elections office signed a petition last summer that was submitted to commissioners calling for the elimination of mail ballots and use of vote tabulator machines.

“How can anyone feel secure about these spring elections,” Weber asked, when that group is handling ballots.

She said she called other county elections offices statewide who said they only use trained election judges or staff to handle ballots.

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Weber asked about how the public would be informed that the public test of the vote tabulator was moved from April 12 to April 25 at 2 p.m. in Exhibition Hall.

The change was apparently made on April 10 or April 11 and Weber said GFPS officials hadn’t been informed of the change.

Commissioner Rae Grulkowski said the public should check the county elections website for updates.

Pete Fontana told commissioners that they’d requested information on the county policies for using volunteers and received no response from the county.

He said he’d had people from his group go to the elections office and ask to volunteer but were denied.

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Richard Liebert, a local veteran who serves on the county planning board said he’s concerned about transparency from the county elections office.

He said the slides from Merchant’s March 31 presentation should have been posted on the website in advance of the meeting and shared with GFPS and the other entities holding elections in May and June. The slides have since been posted.

Liebert said the presentation was “very light on details and numbers.”

He asked commissioners, “how can we trust voting” and questioned the use of volunteers who were publicly opposed to mail ballots.

“I think keeping them in that office is a disservice to the public trust,” Liebert said.

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Shannon Wilson volunteered in the elections office last week and said she stuffed about 7,000 envelopes.

She said that she hadn’t signed the petition and was a trained and certified election judge.

Wilson said she went into the elections office, asked if they needed help, signed the background form and was able to help.

But Wilson said she was concerned that Merchant had mentioned in her March 31 presentation that she had contacted election judges.

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Wilson said she wasn’t contacted, as a certified election judge, and that it was important to use people the county has already trained for that work.

Election judges are trained and certified for two years. State law requires that they be compensated for their time.

According to the elections page on the county website, Merchant is holding election judge training on April 26 and April 28 and anyone interested should stop by the elections office for more information or to sign up.

The Electric also submitted a records request for emails pertaining to the May 2 election and the June 6 library election.

The county acknowledged the request on April 4.

On April 11, The Electric followed up on getting the cost estimate for the request and Carey Ann Haight, deputy county attorney, said she contract the county IT department to provide her with the requested information.

“I know they are extremely busy, and I have not heard back from them yet. Once I have an idea of the volume of documents related to your request which will necessitate my review, I’ll be able to provide you with an estimate for my time,” Haight said.

On April 4, Haight told The Electric, “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.

Weber and Fontana have created the Election Protection Committee and said their goal is “to protect free and fair elections in Cascade County and to demand the resignation of Sandra Merchant.”