Local attorney asks county not to certify results of May 2 special district elections

A local attorney submitted letters to the Cascade County Commissioners on May 18 asking them not to certify the results of the May 2 special district elections and direct another election be conducted.

Stephen Potts is representing Elliot Merja and Riley Denning, property owners within the Fort Shaw Irrigation District; as well as Timothy and Laurie Miller, property owners within the West Great Falls Flood Control and Drainage District.

Both letters detail election irregularities provided by voters in those districts.

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Potts submitted letters and in the Fort Shaw district letter, wrote, “maybe it is better simply to describe this election as a complete failure.”

In the Fort Shaw election, Potts wrote that:

  • each landowner was instructed he must submit a “Notice of Designation of Special District Agent” regardless if one was already on file;
  • although new Notices of Designation of Special District Agent were required to be provided to the county election office not less than 60 days before the election, the district failed to notify landowners or provide the forms to them until after that time had expired, but it also incorrectly informed them they must submit such forms at least 25 days before the election;
  • the district unlawfully voted to exclude change documents submitted by landowners who had previously submitted Notices of Designation of Special District Agent forms;
  • the elections office sent ballots without return envelopes, secrecy envelopes, and inadequate instructions; and
  • ballots were not sent to the electors sufficiently in advance of the election.

Potts wrote that in Denning’s case in Fort Shaw, Denning had already submitted written designations prior to the May 2 election.

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“It was unnecessary for him to submit new designations unless he wanted to make changes. He did not. Yet he was prevented from voting all of the votes to which he is entitled based upon the number of acres of land that he owns,” Potts wrote.

Potts wrote that the district board didn’t follow the proper timelines required by law for submitting and accepting the designation forms.

“We believe other owners were also improperly disenfranchised similar to Mr. Denning,” Potts wrote.

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Other problems in the Fort Shaw election included the lack of signature and secrecy envelopes; ballots had stickers with a voters name and address on the back; and voters weren’t informed of “where the places of deposit were,” for returning ballots, Potts wrote.

“The service provided to the public in this election may be described using words such as ‘abhorrent,’ ‘atrocious,’ ‘contemptible’ and ‘despicable,'” Potts wrote. “Your duties as county commissioners require you to supervise the official conduct of all county officers and to see that the officers faithfully perform their duties. There was nothing ‘faithful’ here. The district and the elections office did not make even a colorable attempt to serve the electors as
required and contemplated by law. I would ask that you send this election back to the district and the elections office, but I have no confidence that either of them is able to conduct an appropriate election. Please send it back with such other action as you best determine to protect the public.”

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In the case of the Millers in the west side district election, Potts wrote that “the most glaring irregularities are that persons who were residents but were not landowners or designated as agents by landowners were sent ballots and permitted to vote; and one of my clients, a properly designated landowner, was not sent a ballot to vote and therefore did not vote.”

The Millers are both property owners and were eligible to vote in the election, but returned their notice of designation of a special district agent, as directed by the elections office, Potts wrote.

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Laurie Miller received a ballot, although it was not for the property for which she had been designated, and Timothy Miller did not receive a ballot. Their son Philip Miller, who is not a property owner and was not designated to receive
a ballot, did receive one and voted, Potts wrote.

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On June 18, 2020, the Cascade County Attorney’s office provided its opinion relating to an identical situation and deemed the election illegal, Potts wrote.

A district court judge ordered the elections office to redo that particular election.

“It is improper for you to certify an election when the county attorney has opined that such an election is illegal and when the illegality has been brought to your attention prior to the canvass,” Potts wrote.

The Cascade County Commission is scheduled to meet at 1:30 p.m. May 19 to conduct the canvass for the special district elections.

The Great Falls Public Schools board is scheduled to canvass their May 2 election during their regular meeting on May 22 at 5:30 p.m.

Brian Patrick, GFPS business operations manager, said that Sandra Merchant, county clerk and recorder, provided their election results last week.

He said they’re consulting with their legal counsel on how to proceed.