Polls opened late for GFPS election due to confusion over voter registers

Polls opened late on May 2 for the school board election at Exhibition Hall at Montana Expo Park.

At 7:14 a.m., The Electric received multiple reports of voters being turned away because the polls weren’t ready, including one Great Falls Public Schools employee who was told the elections staff didn’t have the signature book and so they couldn’t move forward with the election.

Ballots must be returned to Exhibition Hall by 8 p.m. May 2.

The county elections office is not staffed today, nor are they using the drop box at the annex as they have in years past, as was reported by The Electric on April 20.

The Electric asked GFPS officials about the missing signature book, which was actually three boxes of 10 binders each of voter files, which included signature files.

At 4:38 p.m. April 27, Sandra Merchant, Cascade County clerk and recorder, emailed GFPS Superintendent Tom Moore and wrote, “we are just finishing printing the registers and can bring them to you tomorrow or Monday. Let me know when and where you would like us to bring them.”

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Moore said there were no instructions, information or direction regarding the registers.

Moore replied at 4:53 p.m. April 27 with,” thank you, when the registers are ready, please let us know and Brian Patrick will come down and pick them up.”

Merchant replied at 8:46 a.m. April 29 with “the registers were ready, but your email has gone to junk mail again. Someone will be here all day on Monday so whenever is convenient for Patrick to get them they are ready.”

Moore forwarded the email to Brian Patrick, GFPS business operations manager, who went to the elections office around 9:20 a.m. May 1 to pick up the registers.

While there, two county employees loaded three unmarked boxes into Patrick’s car, with no instruction, direction or discussion as to what the registers were for or that they were needed back before the polls were set to open at 7 a.m. May 2, according to Moore and Patrick.

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Moore and Patrick said no one indicated whether the registers were originals or copies. They reviewed one of the boxes and “were puzzled about the materials and why the district would be given registers without explanation or direction by the elections administrator, according to GFPS.

Patrick placed the registers in a vault at the district office for safe keeping.

“It was a bizarre deal,” Moore told The Electric and they’d never been given or handled registers in the past.

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At 7:10 a.m. May 2, election day, Merchant called GFPS asking where the registers were and “upon learning for the first time that the registers were needed at the Expo Park,” Patrick delivered them to Exhibition Hall around 7:25 a.m., according to GFPS.

“I don’t know what we were going to do with them between 9:20 a.m. Monday morning and 7 a.m. this morning,” Moore told The Electric.

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Patrick said that state law requires a county election office to run the trustee election when the board of trustees requests it and the election office accepts it.

Great Falls Public Schools board voted to have a mail ballot election during a November 2022 meeting and notified the elections office, which granted their request, according to county documents.

Patrick said he checked the ballots to make sure candidate names were spelled correctly.

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This is our first non-mail ballot since Patrick has been with GFPS, which is 12 years, he said.

Moore and Patrick said they had a brief conversation last week regarding whether they’d officially ordered the register information and Patrick said they had not.

GFPS officials had asked for a list of registered voters in their district last month and Montana Secretary of State employees had offered to explain to Merchant how to produce such a list if she couldn’t, according to district emails.

Moore said once they had the registers, he and Patrick had thought they might need the information later, which broke voter information by precinct.

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Patrick said that when he went to Expo Park, it didn’t appear that ballots were ready for voters by 7:30 a.m.

Moore said that they’ve spoken to their legal counsel and are continuing to document the process.

“This is highly irregular and nothing we’ve ever experienced before,” Moore told The Electric. “Again, no collaboration or communication with that office about what was expected with these things.”

Patrick said Merchant’s standard response to their questions has been that she will follow the law.

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Moore and Patrick said they’ve been asking about the canvas, which is typically a week or two after the election.

Moore said that normally, GFPS officials go to the county offices for the canvas and the school board is scheduled to officially review the canvas during their May 22 meeting.

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Patrick said there had been some confusion throughout the day since in years past, voters could drop ballots at the county annex on election day, but this year, the drop box has been removed and the county election office is closed today.

The Electric called the election office on May 2 but no one answered the phone.

Photo by Matt Ehnes of Jared’s Detours