Ballots in mail; election committee encourages voters to check envelopes; some election billing submitted

Updated 8:30 p.m. April 18

Local voters have started receiving their ballots on April 18.

The county elections office loaded the ballots into a county vehicle around 6:15 p.m. on April 17 and delivered them to the U.S. Postal Service distribution center.

County officials did not respond to an April 17 email asking if ballots had been delivered to the post office.

The Electric’s headline on the April 17 story was not accurate and has since been corrected.

Ballots delivered to USPS on April 17; county staff, volunteers spent week stuffing envelopes

Brian Patrick, business operations manager for Great Falls Public Schools, said he had not been notified that ballots had been mailed.

“They’ve been pretty nonexistent when it comes to any communication with me,” Patrick said on April 18 of the county elections office.

Jane Weber, a former county commissioner and member of the recently formed election protection committee, said that she was in the elections office on April 17 observing the process and, ”I personally observed some volunteers in the election office removing items from envelopes, flipping them over and re-inserting them into pre-stuffed envelopes, a clear sign that some envelopes were originally not stuffed correctly.”

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

Weber and Pete Fontana of the election protection committee have advised voters to open their envelopes upon arrival and check for:

  • a ballot;
  • that the affirmation envelope has the correct name and address on the label, as well as barcode with the precinct number;
  • that the precinct number on the lower-left hand side of the ballot matches that on the affirmation envelope; and
  • a pink security envelope inside the outer envelope.

The Electric has received multiple reports of ballots folded as they were received will not fit in the security envelope and have to be refolded by voters.

Fontana and Weber said voters should contact the elections office for a new ballot if the precincts numbers don’t match and to notify their committee and the Montana Secretary of State’s Office if there are missing or mismatched items in their envelopes.

Larson says county commission monitoring election process

The county treasurer and accounting offices were also contacted by Sandra Merchant, the county clerk and recorder, requesting staff assistance with preparing ballots, but both office directors said they were too busy to offer help.

Diane Brien, head of the accounting department, said that the accountants had their own deadlines to meet, but that others from the clerk and recorder’s office had helped.

Diane Heikkila, county treasurer, said she wasn’t able to help this time since her office is going into their busy season and she’s down to clerks.

Locals raise concern about private citizens working in county elections office

“When we were slow, I would happily have done so regardless of my feelings of the political issues happening, as I believe we all need to work together to serve our constituents. She was elected in by the people. Where it will be going down the road I do not know, but Cascade County citizens are my main concern,” Heikkila said.

Heikkila also said that her department has been using the new postage machine the county is leasing since IPS closed. She said there were some issues in the beginning, but it’s now working fine for her department and “should actually be saving Cascade County dollars by not having a third party involved.”

GFPS board votes to reaffirm request for mail ballot election

Commissioner Joe Briggs told The Electric in February when they approved the lease that the machine, “is used for elections in smaller counties but lacks the volume capacity to be used here for elections. It is intended to handle the daily mail only.”

According to county documents, the county print shop has charged the elections office for several expenses related to the May 2 GFPS election.

Merchant gives presentation, public still has questions

Those charges were:

  • election envelopes and instructions on March 7 for about $15,000
  • instructions reprinted on March 30 for $4,692
  • 48,005 ballots printed on April 10 for $19,202

Merchant’s cost estimate provided to GFPS on April 10 for envelopes and instructions was $14,508.

Her total cost estimate was $41,821.02 and did not include the costs for printing ballots.

Merchant’s estimated included costs for 31,000 ballots.

On Feb. 3, all three county commissioners, Merchant and other county staff met with IPS owner Denise Riggin about the company’s closure and impact to county mailing, particularly elections.

Election plan meeting today; library retains lawyer for election process; IPS owner offered help to county

During the meeting Riggin said she could make the equipment available to the county. During the main portion of the meeting, she talked about the cost of the equipment, but several county staffers, and Riggin, told The Electric that after the meeting, she had offered the sorting equipment for free.

The Electric reported on that meeting in February and reported an interview with Riggin on March 31 that she had offered the equipment.

County election plan presentation set for March 31

On April 1, Commissioner Rae Grulkowski emailed county officials stating that on March 30, “I was told there was an offer made to the county, by Innovative Postal Service, for their large sorting machine, and no one responded to the offer.”

In her email she wrote that she’d been told it was being picked up for salvage and that during the March 31, an attendee at Merchant’s election presentation asked why the county didn’t respond to the offer and included a link to The Electric’s article.

Meeting set to discuss election plans; SOS provides more details on upcoming elections

Grulkowski said she attempted to contact IPS to find out “how this offer was made, to whom and when.”

Her April 1 email was sent to the commission, Merchant, County Attorney Josh Racki, Clerk of Court Tina Henry, County Treasurer Diane Heikkila, Sheriff Jesse Slaughter and two county employees in the clerk and recorder’s office.

According to county emails, one county employee responded that the offer had been discussed during the Feb. 3 meeting Grulkowski attended and he reiterated the offer to Merchant and her deputy during a March 17 meeting.

GFPS election also going to polls; Merchant says library levy email was a “misunderstanding”

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.

County election official tells Sun River Valley, City of Great Falls office can’t handle mail ballot elections

On April 17, Carey Ann Haight, deputy county attorney, told The Electric that the county IT department “has indicated they anticipate having emails routed to me by Friday of this week. I will let you know about anticipated costs when I have made a summery review of the volume of emails provided and let you know a cost estimate. Upon receipt of payment of the cost estimate I plan to be able to release those documents to you within the 30-day timeframe established in policy.”

On April 18, Raph Graybill, a local lawyer retained by the Great Falls Public Library board, sent a letter to Merchant requesting information.

His his letter, Graybill wrote that the Montana Constitution calls for “all elections shall be free and open, and no power, civil or military, shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of that right,” and that “essential to a ‘free and open’ election is timely, clear, public information regarding election procedures.”

Graybill asked Merchant to respond within seven days regarding:

  • an official election calendar with relevant dates conformed to the June 6 library election, such as when ballots will become available (“you promised such a calendar ‘soon’ on March 29, 2023”);
  • plans for whether the June 6th library election will be by mail, or a combination of absentee ballots and polling place voting;
  • final form of the ballot;
  • notice of the election as required by state statute;
  • plans to mail absentee ballots in accordance with state statute;
  • plans to send mail ballots in accordance with state statutes;
  • plans to mail uniformed service members’ ballots in accordance with state statute; and
  • policies, in accordance with state statute, you have adopted to provide for security of the
    counting process, time and place and notice of vote counting, public observance of vote counting, recording of objections to determinations of validity of votes, and keeping a public record of the vote count.

Graybill wrote that the county election website contains no information regarding the June 6 library election.

“A member of the public visiting your website would have no way of knowing such an election is set to occur,” Graybill wrote. “Failure to provide this information to the public interferes with the election itself, which is premised on clear public information regarding election procedures. It also burdens the public’s right to know and right of participation. The voters of Great Falls have the greatest interest in clear, timely, and certain information regarding the election, and in its successful operation. Failure to conduct the library election or failure to adhere to your full responsibilities to conduct it fairly and in accordance with Montana law will likely severely damage the Great Falls Public Library and may result in legal action against you.”

On April 18, Pete Fontana submitted an ethics complaint to the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices against Cascade County Commissioners, Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant and Devereaux Biddick, a county elections employee.

Fontana filed the complaint on behalf of the recently formed election protection committee.

In his complaint, he wrote that the elections office has been involved in distributing anti-library levy stickers within the elections office during business hours in violation of state law and the office is responsible for conducting the library election for the City of Great Falls. Cars with those stickers have been observed in the county annex parking lot.

He wrote that Biddick and an unnamed person drove the ballots to the U.S. Postal Service sorting center on April 17 and voters have reported receiving multiple ballots, unsealed ballots, ballots without envelopes and ballots that don’t fit in the return envelopes.

Fontana wrote that Merchant did not request the list of deceased voters and remove them from the voter roles prior to sending out ballots.

While members of the public were in the elections office on April 17 observing the process, Fontana wrote that Merchant and her staff constructed a barrier of mobile shelving units to obstruct their view.

Fontana wrote in his complaint that Merchant and County Commissioner Rae Grulkowski enlisted locals who signed a petition last year calling for the elimination of mail ballots to work in the elections office with no policy, guidelines or training for volunteers. Some of those observed volunteering in the elections office also spoke against the library levy during a City Commission meeting.

“On April 17, election observers identified these individuals coming and going with no sign in sheet, no security protocols, passing by the security gate with no one checking them in.  The process for recruiting these volunteers was not open to the public, not advertised to the public, and seems to be handpicked from the petition,” Fontana wrote. “Witnesses have also reported that this group of volunteers and the County Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant, begin each day with a prayer. This is highly inappropriate in a public office on county property.”

Voters, let The Electric know if  you have any issues with your ballot at