Library requests election monitor; commission debates public comment on elections

The Great Falls Public Library board has requested that the County Commission appoint a monitor for their June 6 levy election to avoid taking the matter to court.

In the May 8 letter, Raph Graybill, the attorney representing the board for the levy election on a pro bono basis, wrote to the County Commission, County Attorney Josh Racki and Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant.

In the letter, Graybill wrote that the library board is “extremely concerned about the viability” of their June 6 levy election.

Graybill wrote that even if the levy is approved, “violations of Montana election law or other irregularities in the election process could invalidate the election results. An invalidated election would seriously damage the library.”

Library board requests election monitor

The City Commission voted Feb. 21 to send the question to the voters in the form of an amendment to the city charter to increase the levy for the Great Falls Public Library from the current maximum of two mills to 17 mills.

If approved, the city would be able to levy up to 17 mills annually and the additional 15 mills would generate about $1.55 million, increasing the library’s operating budget to about $2.7 million annually, using current tax figures.

Without the increased funding, Library Director Susie McIntyre has said the library would face a budget shortage leading to staff cuts, reduced community services, fewer hours open to the public, an inability to meet state minimum standards and the loss of state library aid.

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“The board would be compelled to pursue legal action to secure compensation for all losses and damages sustained by the Library as a result of an invalid election process,” Graybill wrote.

The board’s concerns, Graybill wrote, are in part due to a lack of communication from Merchant, as well as “serious irregularities” during the May 2 elections.

On April 18, Graybill sent a letter on behalf of the board to Merchant requesting information.

She responded but didn’t include all the information, and Graybill, followed up asking for more information by noon May 1.

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On April 28, Merchant sent the following to Graybill, according to library emails, “I received your letter regarding more information about the library mill levy election. I am very busy with the current election at this time, but will answer your request after the election is done.”

As of May 9, Merchant had not responded to that letter, according to McIntyre, nor has the library been provided cost estimates for their election.

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Graybill wrote that his office is investigating and seeking to approve allegations of:

  • voter disenfranchisement as the election office did not send absentee ballots for the Great Falls Public Schools election to those in Levy District 29A, who are assessed mills for the school district and were entitled to vote, or allow them to vote at the poll;
  • the election office did not verify signatures before separating envelopes and ballots, in violation of state law;
  • no write-in space, in violation of state law;
  • inaccurate ballot instructions;
  • unsealed envelopes on absentee ballots;
  • improper folding of ballots;
  • multiple ballots sent to absentee voters;
  • voters turned away on May 2 at the polls because the registers were unavailable and ballots were not ready at precinct tables until after 8 a.m.

“Standing alone, any of the above violations of Montana election law could invalidate the recent election. Taken together, this array of statutory violations and other irregularities almost certainly would allow any affected person with standing to challenge the election,” Graybill wrote.

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According to Graybill’s letter, Merchant’s office sent a copy of the ballot on May 8.

Graybill wrote that Merchant told the board is was a “corrected ballot proof” because the first one had errors and it was sent back for correction.

The corrected proof sent to the library board contained a “glaring error” in that it provides instructions for write-in candidates, according to Graybill’s letter.

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There are no candidates, or write-in candidates, in the levy election, which is a yes or no question.

The May 2 Great Falls Public Schools board election ballot did not contain lines for write-ins. Merchant told The Electric and others that there were no write-in candidates so those votes wouldn’t have mattered.

Graybill wrote that the library board has not received a copy of the ballot instructions as of May 8, though Merchant told Library Board Chair Whitney Olson on May 5 that they had already been printed.

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“The board is appropriately concerned that the same errors that could invalidate the school district election are already occurring in the library election,” Graybill wrote.

The library will suffer damage if the election in invalidated and will “hold those responsible for its losses liable for them,” he wrote.

To avoid that, the board is considering action under the state election laws to ask the court to appoint someone to oversee the elections, according to Graybill’s letter.

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In the meantime, the board has aske the county to immediately appoint a mutually acceptable monitor to oversee the June 6 election.

The monitor would have “unfettered, unrestricted access to the operations of the elections office and provide regular reports to the County Commission, the county attorney and the library board regarding any irregularities, violations or other problems related to the administration of the library election,” Graybill wrote.

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The commission and county attorney would be empowered to act to correct those issues if Merchant doesn’t do so immediately once notified by the monitor, according to the letter.

The monitor would also provide technical advice to Merchant and “must be deeply experienced in Montana election law and procedures, such as a non-elected former staff member of the elections office, or a current or former election administrator from another county in Montana,” Graybill wrote.

Graybill requested a response from the county by noon May 10.

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During their May 9 meeting, County Commissioners did not discuss the library’s proposal, but members of the public spoke about elections.

Commissioners always take public comment at the end of the meeting on anything not on the agenda and within their jurisdiction.

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Commissioner Rae Grulkoswki added during this morning’s meeting that it was not the time for comment on actions that fall under the purview of other county election officials.

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Nancy Donovan spoke and thanked Grulkowski for her presence at the polls on May 2 and for supporting Merchant.

She said that Commissioners Joe Briggs and Jim Larson had sowed seeds of doubt by publicly criticizing Merchant.

Donovan questioned why the county attorney’s and sheriff’s office didn’t stop some poll watchers from using phones or laptops on election day.

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There are rules for those handling ballots and in certain areas of the poll that restrict the use of electronic devices, but the sheriff’s office gave guidance to their deputies who provided security on May 2 as to what were legal versus prohibited activities.

Grulkowski thanked Donovan for her comments and encouraged her to share her comments with the elected officials in the county attorney’s and sheriff’s office.

Jane Weber, a former county commissioner and also a poll watcher, said that she was beginning to agree with Briggs’ proposal to remove election administration from the clerk and recorder’s office and under the commission as a department with a staff director.

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Weber began detailing her issued with the May 2 election when Grulkowski cut her off saying the comments weren’t under the commission’s purview and were the responsibility of another elected official.

Carey Ann Haight, deputy county attorney, said she didn’t object to allowing the commentary and that it was her opinion the board did have jurisdiction.

Grulkowski asked how the commission has jurisdiction.

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Haight said the commission has general oversight of county operations and the budget of the departments under other elected officials.

Haight said that if the board chose to, it could take elections away from Merchant’s office and run the department itself.

Grulkowski asked the other commissioners if they should allow Weber to finish her comments.

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Briggs said that they should as a matter of fairness since Grulkowski had allowed Donovan to speak on the same matter but was attempting to stop Weber.

“That’s wrong,” he said.

Briggs said the commission is the only county entity that holds regular public meetings and it’s an appropriate place for the public to make comments regarding county business.

Commissioner Jim Larson said he saw no difference between Donovan and Weber’s comments and “I think they both need to be able to voice their opinion in the election that we oversee.”

Weber was allowed the remainder of her time to speak.

Several others spoke in relation to local election operations.