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Cascade County Elections Office said mail ballots may not be feasible; five elections on horizon


Cascade County Elections Office said mail ballots may not be feasible; five elections on horizon

Mar 17, 2023 | 9:22 pm ET
By Nicole Girten
Cascade County Elections Office said mail ballots may not be feasible; five elections on horizon
Cascade County Election poll photographed on June 7, 2022. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Mail-in ballots may be off the table for upcoming local elections in Cascade County as the Elections Office scrambles under new leadership.

In January, the Secretary of State’s Office approved Cascade County’s mail ballot election plan. However, on March 10, the county elections officer said a poll election would be held instead.

The change caused confusion for several local school districts and the library mill levy slated to be on the ballot, and the path forward still is unclear. The Elections Office said it will be giving a presentation on the plan next week but did not elaborate further.

Friday, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, said voters need mail ballots.

“The clerk’s got to figure that out,” Fitzpatrick said Friday.

Newly elected Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant did not respond to a message left with her office on Thursday. The elections staff member said she would pass the request for an interview to Merchant. Friday, the Daily Montanan followed up, and the staff member said Merchant was not in the office.

The March 10 emails sent by Elections Officer Merchant to districts holding upcoming elections said mail-in ballots would not be “administratively feasible,” as first reported in The Electric. She said some elections would be conducted as poll elections and others potentially postponed.

Typically, more than 80% of voters in the county mail their ballots in, as reflected in data from elections from 2000 to 2018 from the Secretary of State’s Office.

Elections impacted include the trustee elections for Great Falls School District and Sun River Valley School District, the Great Falls Public Library mill levy proposal, as well as the Fort Shaw Irrigation District and the West Great Falls Flood District.

If the library levy doesn’t pass by July 1, Library Director Susie McIntyre said it would lead to staffing and service shortages, and not being open as many hours could lead to a loss of $30,000 in state funding as well.

One challenge the Cascade County Elections Office raised in saying it couldn’t send mail ballots was the closure of a local company that provided mail sorting services.

However, former longtime Elections Officer Rina Moore, who ran as a Democrat and lost to Republican Merchant in November, said in an interview Cascade County was only one of a few counties that used ballot sorting services, and it would have just been a matter of consulting with other counties to see how they handled the process.

“Elections run in states that have had hurricanes,” said Moore, who held the job for 16 years. “You always have those contingency plans in place, and ‘I don’t have time’ is not an option.”

Secretary of State’s Office spokesperson Richie Melby said the office was notified Wednesday of the Cascade County Election Office’s change to hold the school elections at the polls instead of by the originally submitted mail ballot plan. Merchant’s office had been in touch the week prior about the possibility of amending the plan.

SOS responded with language in statute that the plan may be amended until the 35th day before the election. said the deadline had passed. Ballots for the Great Falls Public School District election get mailed out April 13, according to their website. 

“The Secretary of State’s Office also provided the Cascade County elections office with a list of additional mailing service vendors that may be able to provide assistance, while reminding the county that absentee voters will require their ballots mailed,” Melby wrote on Friday.

The SOS said the office viewed the communication from Cascade County as a withdrawal of the mail-in ballot plan, and that the office only has the power to approve, disapprove or recommend changes to amendments to the plan. The SOS is not involved in school elections, and the office recommended Merchant seek future guidance from the County Attorney’s Office.

Merchant, a local businesswoman, won the Clerk and Recorder’s race in November after a hand recount by less than 40 votes against the veteran Moore. Several sources said Merchant was active in an election integrity group before assuming office.

Merchant did not respond to a message left with her office Thursday, but Devereaux Biddick with the Elections Office said in a brief phone call on Friday there would be a presentation in collaboration with Cascade County Commissioners this upcoming Thursday at 1 p.m. to provide answers on the plan moving forward.

“I think you’ll be surprised,” Biddick said.

Merchant’s office is facing issues that altogether would have been a challenge for anyone.

In emails provided to the Daily Montanan, Merchant cited challenges including the closure of Innovative Postal Services, a local ballot sorting company, staff shortages and the upcoming redistricting process to update the approved district map, slated to take place this summer and impact elections starting in 2024.

Director of Business Services and Operations for Great Falls Public Schools Brian Patrick said in emailed responses to questions that IPS closing was unfortunate, however, the business provided fair warning.

“We learned about it in mid-January. As a school district, we have had to make major accommodations to adjust to this closure. We had plenty of notice and made adjustments,” he said.

Patrick said he met with Merchant and Great Falls Public Schools Superintendent Tom Moore on March 3 to discuss whether the election was on track. Patrick said he gave Merchant the number of an expert on school elections, but he said the expert never heard from her.

Both Patrick and Sun River Valley School District Business Manager Belinda Klick were told by Merchant in separate emails shared with the Daily Montanan there would be a poll election conducted with no mail-in ballots.

In the email sent to Klick, Merchant cited the IPS closure and the attempt by the office to replace the company that failed.

“I have been in touch with the Secretary of State’s office and according to MCA 13-19-203, it is not ‘economically or administratively feasible’ to conduct the May 2, 2023 school elections by mail,” the email to Klick read.

Klick responded asking for logistical details around the poll election, like who would be staffing it and if the district would be expected to facilitate it.

“It’s very unlikely we will have a trustee election,” Klick said in an email to the Daily Montanan. “I have 3 open seats and only 2 people who have filled out the ‘Declaration of Intent and Oath of Candidacy’ They have until Thursday, March 23 to file their intent.”

Library Director McIntyre spoke with and emailed Merchant about the upcoming election in February, and after receiving no response, followed up in March to ask when ballots would be mailed out.

Merchant responded the next day saying she would be unable to mail out ballots for the June election, and the June 6 election date for mail-in ballots would not be feasible for similar reasons.

Merchant suggested putting the proposal on the primary ballot in September instead.

In the meantime, July 1 is approaching, and the library may have to make cuts without the levy.

McIntyre said the library had been in talks with the city and county since August 2022 about the election date, and said she’s been in communication with both bodies on what the plan will be moving forward.

On Wednesday, Merchant said in an email to McIntyre that there had been a “misunderstanding” about her previous email; she said she wasn’t refusing to do the library mill election, but proposing a new date due to the issues she had cited.

“I think that the Library, the City, the County and the Elections office should work together to overcome any issues that the Elections office faces,” McIntyre said in a written response to questions. “We are committed to ensuring that the voters of Great Falls are able to exercise their constitutionally protected right to vote.”

McIntrye said the library is at “crossroads” as their current funding model “isn’t adequate to provide the quality Library services that our community deserves.”

Without the passage of the Library Levy to provide additional funding, the Library will be facing reductions in staffing and services starting July 1, 2023

•Reduced early literacy and after-school programs for children and parents
•No homebound services and programming for people who are disabled and seniors
•No computer and technology classes and reduced support for job seekers
•No College Readiness Program for teens (literacy programs, test prep, and application assistance)
•Reducing its hours to be open only five days a week providing less service to all community members
•Failing to meet Montana Public Library Standards disqualifying the Library from receiving State Library Aid of around $30,000
•Bookmobile service maintained at only 3 days a week providing inadequate service to daycares, schools and seniors
•Failing to adequately address Library safety so that parents, seniors and families feel welcome at the Library

Source: Great Falls Public Library

In a phone interview, Lynn DeRoche, who started in the Elections Office 16 years ago, said Merchant did not consult her on how to run elections and barely spoke to her at all after Merchant took the job. She said Merchant would greet her in the mornings and then go into her office and close the door.

In February, DeRoche received another job offer and put in notice she would be leaving at the end of the week.

Merchant asked her to help coordinate a timeline for the irrigation and flood district elections, among other tasks. DeRoche said she told Merchant the tasks would be impossible to accomplish in the time she had left. She said Merchant relieved her of her duties and paid her for the remainder of the time she was scheduled.

When it was clear to her that Merchant was going to hire a friend, Biddick, DeRoche said she knew it was time to go.

“I’m sad about leaving,” DeRoche said. “I don’t know I would go back. I contemplate that … Everything that we’ve done is all being taken down, and it’s been two and a half months.”

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect the information the Secretary of State’s Office shared with Merchant about changing election plans. The SOS said changes could take place prior to the 35th day before an election; it did not say the deadline already had passed.