Second lawsuit filed over May 2 elections; monitor files first report with court

A second lawsuit has been filed over the May 2 elections in Cascade County.

On May 26, Steve Potts filed suit on behalf of Elliot Merja, Riley Denning, and Timothy and Laurie Miller.

The suit is filed against Cascade County, Sandra Merchant, the Fort Shaw Irrigation District and the West Great Falls Flood Control and Drainage District.

In the suit, Merja, Denning and the Millers allege that the county, Merchant and two special districts violated multiple provisions of state law.

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They ask the court to void the two special district elections and order a special election should be held.

In the case of the Fort Shaw Irrigation District, Merja and Denning own irrigable land within the district and were candidates for the district’s board on the May 2 ballot.

They allege that Merchant, the county and the district violated state law by incorrectly instructing voters and not sending ballot to all eligible voters.

They argue that the Fort Shaw Irrigation District refused to accept valid change documents regarding qualified voters and/or designated agents at least 14 days prior to the election; failed to notify the election office within four days of receiving those documents and failing to provide necessary information regarding those changes so the election office could administer the proper ballots.

In the suit, Merja and Denning allege that Merchant and the county violated state law by mailing ballots on April 20-21; not providing signature and secrecy envelopes.

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The violations of state election laws, “probably affected the outcome of the election such that…the court should find the result of the election should be held void and a special election should be held at least 85 days after said finding,” according to the lawsuit, in the case of both the Fort Shaw and West Side Flood special districts.

In the West Side Flood and Drainage Control District, electors must owns irrigable lands.

The Millers own those lands but Timothy Miller was not sent a ballot and Laurie Miller was sent a ballot for a tract of land for which she was not the designated elector, according to the lawsuit.

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The Millers allege that for the May 2 election, Merchant and the county sent ballots to residents who were not land owners or designated agents, as defined under state law.

They argue that Merchant and the county applied the wrong section of state law to the west side drainage district election.

Potts wrote in the suit that even if they had applied the law section properly to the drainage district election, “Merchant sent the wrong ballots to persons who had been designated to vote other parcels and in other instances no ballots for particular parcels to persons who had been designated to vote by the owner(s) of said parcels; and also sent ballots to and counted ballots of persons who had no title or evidence of title to any land within” the district.

A similar issue occurred in the 2020 drainage district election for which a candidate filed suit against the county and the District Court judge invalidated that election and ordered a new one.

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On May 18, Potts sent letters to Cascade County Commissioners on behalf of Merja, Denning and the Millers notifying them of errors and violations of law in those two special district elections. He asked the commissioners not to certify the results of those elections and order a new election to be held.

During a May 19 meeting, the county’s canvass board, which included Commissioners Jim Larson and Rae Grulkowski and Clerk of Court Tina Henry, certified the results.

Deputy County Attorney Carey Ann Haight said during the meeting that the canvass board had limited power and could not investigate claims of election irregularities.

Library election lawsuit hearing moved up to May 18

The Great Falls Public Library board had filed suit against Merchant and the county on May 10. The board asked the court to appoint a monitor for their June 6 levy election.

The court ordered that absentee ballots for the library election be mailed by April 17.

During a May 18 hearing, District Court Judge Brenda Gilbert of Livingston sided with the library and appointed Lynn Deroche, former county elections staff, as the monitor.

On May 24, Deroche filed her first report with the court detailing her observations from her first day as monitor on May 23.

Those filings are public record.

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Deroche reported to the court that she requested information from Merchant on how many ballots were printed in each precinct, how many absentee ballots were mailed in each precinct and a daily report of how many ballots were accepted.

She reported that as of 3 p.m. May 23, she had not received that information.

Deroche reported to the court that at 10:24 a.m. May 23, Everette and Carol Hall came to the elections office to drop off their voted absentee ballots and to let Merchant know that they had each received an additional signature envelope in their ballot packets that belonged to other voters.

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Deroche reported that Dev Biddick, county elections employee, asked Merchant how to deal with the issue and then called the Montana Secretary of State, who told her to call the voters to whom the additional signature envelopes belonged to see if they had received their ballots and work out a plan to correct the issue.

As of 3 p.m. May 23, Deroche reported the issue had not been addressed.

Deroche reported that around 10:30 a.m. six voters came to the election office to drop off ballots or get a replacement ballot and no staff was available to help them.

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She reported that Merchant left the office with Commissioner Rae Grulkoski for a meeting from 11 a.m. to about 1 p.m.

No public meetings were on the commission calendar during that time, according to the county website. During the that morning, Bonnie Fogerty, the commission clerk, said Grulkowski had a meeting scheduled at KRTV until noon that day.

Deroche reported to the court that she asked Patrick Coley, a county elections employee who started shortly before the May 2 election, when he was processing the mail and how he was handling ballots with mismatched signatures.

She reported that Coley told her he was putting them to the side and at the end of the day “maybe Sandra or Dev will look at them to compare the signatures.” She reported that they hadn’t been looked at when she left the election office at 3 p.m. that day.

After the May 2 election, the elections staff was verifying signatures though they’d already been separated from ballots, according to the library’s lawsuit and reports from the local election protection committee.

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Deroche reported to the court that a voter came to the office to ask why she hadn’t yet received her absentee ballot. Deroche said she asked Biddick when that ballot was sent and Biddick told her it wasn’t mailed until May 18, a day after the legal and court ordered deadline.

At 1 p.m. on May 23, Deorche reported that a voter came to the office wanting to vote but was told the only option was to vote at the poll on June 6.

At 2:43 p.m. May 23, a couple came to the office to pick up ballots since they will be out of town on election day for a medical procedure, according to Deroche’s report. They asked what they needed to do and were told they had to sign up to be on the absentee voter list in order to pick up a ballot.

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“This is not true, they can pick up an absentee ballot and not be put on the absentee voter list,” Deroche wrote in her report to the court.

At 3 p.m. Donovan Dennis, an oversees absentee voter, called the office about his ballot, Deorche reported.

Biddick wasn’t able to assist him but took his contact info and said she’d pass the message to Merchant.

Dennis contacted The Electric in April regarding his concerns about getting his absentee ballot for the May 2 school board election.

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He told The Electric on May 27 that he did eventually receive that ballot but Merchant hadn’t included instructions on how to return the ballot as had been past practice.

Dennis said that he requested those instructions and submitted his ballot, receiving confirmation from Merchant that she had received it, but he said that according to the Montana Secretary of State’s ballot tracker, the system showed the ballot had not yet been received.

“So I have no sense for it it was counted or not,” he said.

As of May 23, he said he had not yet received his ballot for the June 6 library election. He called that day to check on it and said he received his ballot on May 25 via email.

Dennis said he was initially inclined to give Merchant the benefit of the doubt, “understanding that she needed time to learn the job. But it’s clear to me at this point that her inability to manage the elections process is damaging our local democracy. I am confident I would not have received a ballot for the library election had I not requested it specially.”

At 3:11 p.m. Deroche reported to the court that she asked Merchant if anyone would be working after hours in the office. Merchant said she wouldn’t be there after 5 p.m. but wasn’t sure if Biddick or Coley would.

Deroche reported that she asked Coley and he told her he’d be there processing ballots until 8 or 9 p.m. and that he would be the only one in the office.

Photo by Matt Ehnes of Jared’s Detours