Library board, Merchant continue discussion of June 6 election details; Fort Shaw, West Side flood district ballot issues

This week, Sandra Merchant, Cascade County clerk and recorder, responded to the Great Falls Public Library board’s request for information.

The board’s attorney, Raph Graybill, sent a letter to Merchant on April 18 requesting the following within seven days:

  • 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.

On April 25, the library board discussed a potential emergency meeting to discuss potential legal action since Merchant hadn’t yet responded to Graybill’s letter.

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Merchant responded in an April 26 email and said that the library didn’t request a mail ballot “so it will be held as a combination of absentee ballots and polling place voting.

Merchant wrote that the “final form of the ballot is not complete.”

The City Commission voted on Feb. 21 to send the library levy to the ballot and the city’s resolution and ballot language was sent to the county elections office on Feb. 22, according to City Clerk Lisa Kunz.

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Absentee ballots for the library election will be mailed on May 17, according to Merchant.

In response to Graybill’s question about election security, Merchant wrote, “we will be following the [Secretary of State’s] direction on handling ballots, chain of custody, seals and seal logs, numbers and partisanship of election judges, etc. as well as the place, time, and notice of counting; recording of objections to determinations of validity of votes; and keeping the public records of the count; there will be a place for public observance of the count.”

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Graybill had also noted in his letter that the library levy wasn’t included on the county elections website.

It has since been added.

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On April 27, Graybill responded with a second letter.

He thanked Merchant for the information provided, but wrote that her response was incomplete regarding the ballot itself.

“So that my client may review it for errors, will you provide the ballot and associated instructions that will be sent to voters, now? Otherwise, in accordance with my previous request, please provide your office’s deliberations and plans regarding the ballot and associated instructions, including: 1) the form and contents of ballot; 2) the form and content of the instructions, 3) when they will be available for review; and 4) when they will be sent for printing. As you know, the accuracy of the form and contents of the ballot and associated instructions is essential for conducting a fair and successful election,” Graybill wrote.

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He also asked for information on the appointment, notification and instruction of election judges.

“After sending my previous letter, credible information surfaced indicating that, inside the election office, volunteers distributed campaign materials in opposition to the Library mill levy to one another. This compounds the Library’s significant concern with ensuring a fair and legitimate election process. Please immediately provide: 1) a full account of such activities; 2) any deliberations within the Elections Office that led to these activities; 3) your response to them; and 4) if you are aware of these activities, but have done nothing to prevent them, why that is not a violation of § 2-2-121(3)(a), MCA,” Graybill wrote.

Graybill also wrote that there have been reports for the May 2 school board and special district elections of unsealed ballots, voters receiving multiple ballots, some voters not receiving ballots, inconsistent instructions and return envelopes without barcodes.

“Please provide an account of your office’s deliberations and plans to prevent these mistakes from occurring in the Library mill levy election,” Graybill wrote.

He asked Merchant to respond by noon on May 1.

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“Please be advised, the intent of this letter is to ascertain whether your office is able and willing to plan for and conduct the Library mill levy election transparently, appropriately, and lawfully and, accordingly, to avoid resorting to litigation to secure a fair election process,” Graybill wrote.

Great Falls Public Schools officials have also been requesting additional information from Merchant’s office over the last week.

On April 24, GFPS Superintendent Tom Moore wrote to Merchant about questions their office was receiving regarding whether write-in lines were required on the school board ballot.

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An SOS staffer largely referred the question back to Merchant and the county attorney’s office.

“Again, our goal is a successful trustee election, that will not be overturned because of some oversight or misinterpretation of statue or regulation,” Moore wrote.

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Merchant responded to Moore and wrote that “there are no write-in candidates in this election so, as has previously been done, we did not put a line for a write-in candidate on the ballot. There is nothing requiring a write-in line if there are no write-in candidates, and if the line was there and someone wrote a name in it would invalidate their vote. The ballot form was also approved by the school district before printing without a write-in line.”

Past ballots have included space for write-ins despite no filed write-in candidates, such as the June 2022 primary ballots, which included space for write-ins in races with no filed candidates.

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On those past ballots, a name in the write-in line did not invalidate the entire ballot if there were other seats on the ballot.

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The Fort Shaw Irrigation District and voters in the West Great Falls Flood Control and Drainage District has also expressed concerns for the May 2 election.

Elliot Merja, board chair for the Fort Shaw Irrigation District, said they’ve had challenges with their May 2 election, which is being handled by the county elections office.

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For their district, votes are calculated by acreage owned and requires designated agent forms to determine who should get a ballot.

The election office has handled those forms in the past, Merja said, but they didn’t do it this year, so the irrigation district handled it themselves.

“We weren’t given the info that had to be sent out until it was passed the legal deadline,” Merja said.

He said the letter provided by the elections office that the district mailed out indicated voters could bring those to the elections office and get their ballots.

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Merja said those letters were held in the elections office rather than being sent to the irrigation district for certification, so they had to schedule a special board meeting on April 27 to certify those letters so voters can get their ballots.

Merja said he didn’t have a problem with their ballots being printed on 8.5 by 11-inch paper, but the ballots had labels on the back with the voters name. He said the ballots should have been numbered with a signature envelope to track and verify the ballots.

He said their ballots also came without instructions on where to return them.

Merja said state law doesn’t require a signature, “but it makes you wonder how somebody votes.”

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He said he went to the elections office on April 27 and was told they couldn’t have names on the back of the ballots and they needed secrecy and signature envelopes.

“They said they didn’t have staff to do it properly but it would be better next time,” Merja said. “I was close to losing it. I did not have a very fun time in there today.”

He said people in the office started putting labels over the name on the ballot and he asked why they were changing the ballot their office distributed. Merja said he showed staff the state law provisions regarding irrigation district elections, flustering staff, and Merchant came out to talk to him.

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Merja said Merchant told him they’d do better next time and he asked “don’t all elections matter?”

Merja said Merchant told him they wanted everyone to vote.

Merja said he told her “you’re making it hard.”

Merja said there are about 250 ballots in their district that were supposed to be mailed on April 17, but most weren’t mailed until April 21 and he said as of April 27, some still hadn’t received a ballot.

Merja said the elections office wouldn’t give ballots to anyone who brought in their designation letters until they went back to the district board for certification.

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He said the law stipulates they don’t have to go back to the board when the elections office since they can look at the county tax rolls to verify acreage and anything from 13 days or less before an election, the elections office is supposed to be able to verify the acreage.

“I’m concerned that what they’ve done is they’ve stopped a lot of voters from voting,” Merja said. “I’m worried is what they’re trying to do is find a way to put the blame on somebody else. As far as our election goes, I think what will happen, a lot of people wont send in ballot because no instructions on how to do it. This election could go kind of awry because of that.”

He said the district has worked to inform their voters are how to vote.

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A voter in the West Side Flood Control and Drainage District said that she had received the designated agent form a few weeks ago to pick which person on the title would vote on their board positions.

That district is also different in who is eligible to vote, a determination that was made incorrectly a few years ago and the matter went to court, forcing the elections office to redo that election.

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The woman, who asked her name not be used for fear of reprisal, said that she and her ex-husband are on the title, but they have always had her as the designated voter for the property since he no longer lives on the property.

She said that her son and boyfriend who live in the house but aren’t on the title also received ballots for the flood district election.

“I’m pretty sure it’s illegal for them to vote,” she said.

The woman said that a similar issue had occurred a few years ago and residents threw  fit.

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She said others in the district received ballots who shouldn’t have and they spoke to the elections office, which indicated they should bring those ballots in to be destroyed.

Dave Schuler, president of the Gore Hill County Water District, said that he didn’t have an issue with their ballots being printed on 8.5 by 11-inch paper, but this year’s election was “unique because for previous elections, we were on the school ballot.”

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He said they have about 500 registered voters in their district and had three people file to run for two positions, as well as a write-in candidate.

Shuler said the water district board did not print their ballots and that the elections office had printed them. He said he was told they would be hand counted.

“I didn’t see any issues, but the process is a little bit different,” Shuler said of this year’s election.

He said the district hasn’t been told yet if they’d have to pay for their election or what the cost would be.

In an April 26 statement, Merchant wrote that the SOS switched to a new system for elections in January.

The system, ElectMT, Merchant said had glitches as new systems do.

“ElectMT provides the voter rolls to the election office and labels are printed from those rolls. If you have received a duplicate ballot, please bring it in to the Cascade County Elections Office so that we can work with the Secretary of State to make the correction. This cannot be handled over the phone. It is illegal to vote more than once in any election. Each absentee ballot has a return envelope with a unique elector scan bar code. It is scanned when the ballot is returned. No other ballots addressed to that elector can be processed. The barcode and the elector’s information are downloaded from ElectMT also,” Merchant wrote.

On April 20, The Electric asked the SOS if there were issues with duplicates on their end, since Merchant told GFPS that her office was checking with SOS to determine the issue.

Richie Melby, SOS communications director, said on April 20 that, “our office reviewed the ballot label file that was generated by the system and sent to Cascade County elections. According to the review, there were no duplicates found in that file.”

Merchant also wrote that, “in addition to the new ElectMT process, the election office had to deal with a major issue of getting our ballots mailed. IPS was the county’s local mailing service that provided the postage permit and sorting of the ballot envelopes by zip code. IPS went out of business Feb. 28, 2023. The election office tried to replace IPS with a local provider who ultimately was unable to handle the size of the process. The decision was then made by Sandra Merchant, election administrator, to purchase the election office’s own permit. The sorting of ballots was done in house, which is a new process. To accomplish this, I selected volunteers who underwent background checks. Then election Judges and county staff were utilized to stuff the envelopes with the ballots so that they went out on time.

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IPS did not print ballots or envelopes for county elections, but sorted the ballots, a cost saving measure to the county.

IPS notified the county in mid-January of the impending closure and the owner met with county officials, including Merchant, in early February to discuss the transition and she offered help as well as their sorting machine.

According to county records, the postage permit payment was processed April 6 for $580 for the application fee and imprint fee.