Merchant conducts public test of vote tabulator; COPP returns complaint; library awaiting information from Merchant

Sandra Merchant, Cascade County clerk and recorder, conducted the public test of the vote tabulator on April 25.

About 100 people attended the test that has been conducted in recent years with little public interest at Exhibition Hall in Montana Expo Park.

Merchant ran the test deck of ballots through the machine with no issue and when asked about whether the folded ballots would jam the machine, she ran a stack of 25 folded ballots through the machine.

Merchant ran her test reports and made them available for public viewing.

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There was some confusion when she added those ballots to the total of the first batch without zeroing out the machine and whether the total ballots through the machine was correct since she appeared to be referring to the number of votes cast rather than physical ballots based on the report sheets.

Merchant initially said that she ran 255 ballots through the machine and that her second batch of 25 ballots brough the total to 330.

But, based on the reports she presented, it was 85 ballots in the first test batch and 25 in the second, which totaled 110 ballots, as noted on the report, and a total of 330 voters cast.

There are five candidates on the ballot with three positions available.

Ballots are due by 8 p.m. May 2.

Filing for the city election opens April 20

During the public test, Merchant took some questions from the public and told those who asked about refolded ballots that “they all run through the machine just fine.”

Merchant said elections staff and election judges would flatten ballots as they processed them, beginning the day before the election.

Peter Fontana of the recently established election protection committee asked about getting a breakdown of ballots per precinct.

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Merchant said that would be available on election night once the ballots are counted.

A woman in the audience asked if there was a process for handling any ballots that wouldn’t go through the machine and Merchant said there was but declined to detail that process.

Asked about write-in options on the ballot, Merchant called up Brad Johnson, a former Montana secretary of state, who left office in 2009 and finished serving on the Montana Public Service Commission at the end of last year.

He said that a voter could write a candidate’s name on their ballots, but that would likely invalidate their ballot since there is no space to write-in a candidate.

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Later on, Julie Bass, who has been volunteering in the election office helping stuff ballot envelopes, is a certified election judge and signed a petition last summer calling for the elimination of mail ballots, spoke about the state’s new Elect Montana system and that it was causing problems and asked Johnson to talk about experience with new systems.

There were several bouts of people speaking over each other and getting heated between different groups, but the room cleared out within about an hour without incident.

Last week, 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.

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

In his complaint, he addressed a number of issues.

In an April 21 response, COPP Chris Gallus wrote that “a plain reading of the statutes governing my authority to process your complaint shows that I do not have such jurisdiction.”

Gallus wrote that under Montana law, a person alleging a violation of the state’s code of ethics by a local government official or employee “shall notify the county attorney of the county where the local government is located,” so that falls to the Cascade County Attorney’s office rather than COPP, unless the complaint is made against the county attorney, then it falls under the COPP jurisdiction.

Last week, The Electric reported that a volunteer in the elections office had seen other volunteers passing out ‘no library levy’ stickers.

Fontana included that in his complaint.

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Gallus wrote that state law states “a public employee may not solicit support for or opposition to any political committee, the nomination or election of any person to public office, or the passage of a ballot issue while on the job or at the place of employment.”

Gallus wrote that he has jurisdiction over that statute, but “your complaint does not detail or otherwise describe any specific alleged violations committed by a named public employee for me to consider. I would point out that the statute applies specifically and exclusively to public employees and does not include elected officials of a local government. Similarly, the statute does not ‘restrict the right of a public employee…to express personal political views’ including the placement of campaign bumper stickers or related material on a personal vehicle.”

Fontana lodged other complaints against the election office to which Gallus wrote, “please note I am not provided jurisdiction or oversight as to the general operations or conduct of business by a local government department.”

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By phone, Gallus told The Electric that he returned the complaint to Fontana and Josh Racki, Cascade County attorney, is copied on the letter.

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

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.

This week, the website is updated with the date of the library election.

Merchant gives presentation, public still has questions

During the April 25 library board meeting, Library Director Susie McIntyre said that she had not yet received a response from Merchant.

She said she was hoping to have a response from Merchant by tomorrow.

The library board voted to allow McIntyre to work with Graybill regarding the levy, but McIntyre said that if Graybill recommends legal action, she’d prefer not to make that decision herself.

“I think we should be prepared to have an emergency board meeting,” McIntyre said and the board voted to support that plan.

An emergency board meeting requires 24-hours notice.

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McIntyre said that state law allows a public entity to discuss litigation in closed session except when it’s a public entity versus another public entity so the board should be prepared to have a public discussion on potential litigation over the library levy election.

County Commissioner Rae Grulkowski is the county representative on the library board.

Pam Carroll lives in the Gore Hill Water District area and said she and her husband received ballots for that board election on regular paper with conflicting instructions.

She said she’s lived in that district for 38 years and their board election had always been included on the regular ballot.

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Carroll said she and her husband received two envelopes each, one with the school district ballot, one with the Gore Hill ballot on a regular piece of paper.

There are three names on the ballot for two four-year terms, as well as a line for a write-in.

The instructions indicate “this ballot should be marked with an X in the square before the name of each individual or candidate from whom the elector intends to vote. The elector may write in or affix a pre-printed label in the blank spaces or paste over any other name. The name of the individual for whom he/she wishes to vote and vote by marking an X in the square before the name.”

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The Gore Hill ballot also included the separate instructions from the GFPS ballots, she said.

Carroll said there was no barcode on the return envelope for her Gore Hill ballot.

She said she called the elections office to ask about the ballot since she was confused and spoke with Dev Biddick.

Carroll said that Biddick took her concern and went to ask someone else about it, then returned to the phone and said “it’s been duly noted and I have to get back to work.”

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Carroll said that Biddick didn’t ask for her name, address, phone number or any other information.

Carroll said her husband called the elections office about the Gore Hill ballots and was told that was how the water district board wanted them printed and that they had printed the ballots and delivered them to the elections office.

The water district manager and a board member said that was not the case, that they had not printed or delivered the ballots to the elections office.

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“So we were lied to basically,” Carroll said. “I’m not happy with it and I’m not happy with what we were told.”

After the public test on April 25, Merchant told The Electric in person that the elections office had printed those ballots.

She said the law requires the county election office to run the water district elections.