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Cascade County approves municipal election canvass after delays

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Cascade County approves municipal election canvass after delays

Nov 29, 2023 | 9:06 pm ET
By Nicole Girten
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Cascade County approves municipal election canvass after delays
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Cascade County approves municipal election canvass after delays

Tensions were high and sparks flew between Cascade County Commissioner Joe Briggs and Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant over ballot totals.

“You could keep playing around with these numbers, if you wanted to, and come up with different numbers every time,” Merchant said.

The commission, acting as the Board of Canvassers, unanimously approved the election canvass Wednesday for the recent municipal election in the county, with Briggs noting he did so “reluctantly.”

Merchant supporters believe this is the first time the canvass has been conducted in accordance with the law, while other residents see this process as a departure from norms and a foreshadowing of future delays and confusion to come with the handling of longer ballots with state and federal candidates in 2024.

Merchant was elected clerk and recorder last year, narrowly defeating 16-year incumbent Rina Moore. Since then, one open lawsuit against her office alleges her mishandling of two May elections, and the Great Falls Public School District called for the county to remove election administration from her purview, citing a lack of communication.

The board initially started the canvassing process last Wednesday, already past the two-week statutory deadline to complete canvassing. After more than five hours of work — which Briggs characterized as confirming a machine count but not as actual reconciliation between local and state results — Briggs moved to table the canvass after concerns about results from Cascade and Belt.

Wednesday, Briggs said the concerns with Cascade and Belt were resolved as Merchant had manually added ballots into the statewide ElectMT system and got the numbers counted with the tabulator to match, which is needed to “balance” the election and approve results. But his concern Wednesday was surrounding the results for neighborhood council elections.

He said there were 52 more votes run through machines than accepted into the statewide system, and the new numbers presented Wednesday brought that difference to 32 votes.

“I have no way of knowing on a neighborhood council basis whether the number of votes that went through the machine match the number of votes returned,” he said.

Briggs said the Neighborhood Council Five election, which was all write-in candidates, was decided by one vote, and he wanted to see the results broken down by council, when the results he had were broken down by precinct. He said he was told by the Secretary of State’s office such a report could be produced.

He said the council election had voters across two precincts. Briggs said the board hand tallied the council results between overlapping precincts during the last meeting.

“Without that granular data, you can’t make a solid analytical decision when you’re talking about one vote,” he said.

Merchant said she also consulted with the Secretary of State: “You have by precinct. You’ve added them together. There are no other reports.”

Throughout the meeting, frustration clearly mounted between Merchant and Briggs as Merchant said the numbers from the tabulator and ElectMT matched and the results already available showed the council outcomes, to which Briggs requested to see the report from the tabulator showing they matched.

Merchant at first insisted he already had such a report, but Briggs doubled down and requested she print it out.

“Would you please reproduce it for me so that I can vote on this canvass?” Briggs said.

Merchant left to her office to print a report showing the totals for the election matching between ElectMT and the tabulator, which Briggs noted was not broken down by individual election.

Commission and board Chairperson Rae Grulkowski – a Merchant ally who may lose her position as chairperson in the new year due to a recently passed ordinance – asked if the commissioners had a motion to accept the canvass.

Commissioners sat in silence for about three minutes until Grulkowski asked again, to which Briggs said he was still concerned about the lack of granular data on the election results.

“I will, quite honestly reluctantly, make a motion to certify the election in the canvass as presented to us,” he said.

Pete Fontana of the resident organized watchdog group the Election Protection Committee said he shared Briggs’ concern. He said if ballots got stuffed in the wrong envelope, they wouldn’t be counted properly.

“Without the granular data, when there’s a one vote difference that you need to make sure that the people that were voting in the neighborhood council districts are actually voting for the right people,” he said.

Fontana said the granular report can be run, called “a BP34 report,” that lists active sent, returned, void and undeliverable ballots, but said there’s no way to tell if a ballot was sent in the correct envelope.

“It’s going to be even more exacerbated in the federal general election when you have splits to include legislators, senators, transit district overlays, conservation district overlays,” he said.

Beth Cummings, a Merchant supporter, said there have previously been differences in results, to which Briggs later agreed.

“And we’re going to buy all this in a time when a canvass was never conducted properly, because it never was conducted according to law,” Cummings said. “I’m not certain what the concern is.”

Merchant supporters largely expressed gratitude, saying it was the first time a canvass had been conducted “according to law,” referencing statute the canvass must be conducted in public, which all previous canvasses have been. However, they preferred to see the entire process of commissioners verifying outcomes in public.

“I’ve been involved with election integrity for three years and I am very gratified that the process is truly a legal process,” said Jane Wenaas.

“Election integrity” is tied to the election denial movement following former President Donald Trump’s lost election in 2020. Both Merchant and Grulkowski are known election deniers in the community.

Briggs consulted Deputy County Attorney Carey Ann Haight last week during the hours-long meeting, where commissioners were each doing math to verify election results on their own, whether the calculations could have been done prior to the meeting, to which Haight said yes, but Grulkowski disagreed.

“We’ve got to do it when the board meets,” Grulkowski said.

Grulkowski said during her final comments the canvass had been completed “according to the law” and said although there is only an official audit process for federal elections, the board was able to do an audit process at the local level.

“We never audit our local elections until this process right here. And we have done that. And that’s something to be proud of,” she said. “We need to drill down and make certain that every vote is counting. And by golly, we’ve done it.”

Grulkowski said the board can call for a recount if it so chooses.