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Election official: Residents’ votes may be ‘nullified’ while commissioners mull change

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Election official: Residents’ votes may be ‘nullified’ while commissioners mull change

Dec 07, 2023 | 9:55 pm ET
By Darrell Ehrlick
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Election official: Residents’ votes may be ‘nullified’ while commissioners mull change
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A notice on the Cascade County elections department website notices a meeting in which Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant's office warns residents that their votes may be taken (Screenshot Cascade County website).

Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant, who also serves at the county’s election administrator, said a notice posted to the county’s website Thursday afternoon was just doing what county commissioners should have done: Inform the public about substantial changes in county government.

On the county’s election website her office posted:

“**NOTICE** To all registered voters in Cascade County- your right to vote is in jeopardy! Two of the County Commissioners have stated their intention to nullify the 14,000+ votes that were cast November 8, 2022, for the current Clerk & Recorder/Elections Administrator. They have on the agenda for the Commission meeting on December 12, 2023, a resolution to remove the Elections Administrator duties from the Clerk & Recorder position, overthrowing the election that took place and appointing a person of their choosing-not chosen by the people-to run the elections in the future. See the link below for the resolution and contact the Commissioners to let them know if you want your vote to count!”

Merchant said the message, posted in red letters, is meant to tell the public that their votes are being cancelled by two of the three county commissioners, which have confirmed that they plan to move the elections operations to an appointed position which will report to the three. In addition, two of the commissioners, Joe Briggs and James Larson, will likely change the structure of the commission to elect the chairperson of the three-member commission, rather than rotate it.

The message on the website, which took several commissioners by surprise, was the latest action in a series of disputes between the elected officials, all of whom are Republican. Current chairwoman Rae Grulkowski will likely be removed as the chairwoman, but remain on the council after the political newcomer became the first commissioner to serve in the leadership position without experience, leading to claims by some in the county that business, including running commission meetings, wasn’t being done efficiently.

Meanwhile, Merchant narrowly edged out former longtime Cascade County Clerk Rina Moore in 2022, while having virtually no experience. What followed was a series of election mistakes and lawsuits, prompting the two veteran commissioners, Briggs and Larson, to consider removing the elections office from the clerk and recorder position.

Changing both the leadership structure on the commission as well as considering moving the elections administrator to an appointed position is expected to take place at a meeting on Tuesday.

Election official: Residents’ votes may be ‘nullified’ while commissioners mull change
Cascade County Commissioner Rae Grulkowski (Photo courtesy of Cascade County).

Grulkowski said the county is already planning on moving the meeting to a larger venue because of the expected public turnout.

The posting on the website comes as tensions are still high after Cascade County struggled to balance voting results from the November elections, missing a canvassing deadline and leading to some confusion about the process.

Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki said he had seen the notice, and different departments maintain different aspects of the website. Sometimes, he said, departments may consult with the county attorney before posting, but there’s no editing or interference, and Merchant is an elected official who can manage her department – and website messaging.

Racki said some messages – for example, if a public official was using a site to encourage voting for a specific candidate – could run afoul of Montana law, but informing the public about a meeting is within her duties.

Merchant told the Daily Montanan that she was simply letting people – more than 14,000 who supported her – know that the commissioners were changing the outcome by stripping away her duties.

She said she was aware of and approved the message that was posted. Moreover, she claims the county has not properly given notice that it intends to “take over” the office on Wednesday after the Tuesday meeting.

“It’s really sad and disgusting,” she said.

Jane Weber, spokesperson for The Election Protection Committee, a local citizens group which has been monitoring problems in the Cascade County Elections office, said, “This is outrageous.  The post on the county website amounts to using public funds to lobby people to oppose a county resolution. It is highly inappropriate and demonstrates the exact kind of behavior we have been concerned about since Merchant took office.  We are researching the legal ramifications of her actions and will take appropriate legal steps to address this issue if we find she has violated the law.”

Larson pushed back on the notion that a move to restructure the county department was taking the votes away from Cascade County residents.

“She will still be clerk and recorder,” Larson said.

Election official: Residents’ votes may be ‘nullified’ while commissioners mull change
Cascade County Commissioner James Larson (Photo courtesy of Cascade County).

Instead, he pointed to Montana law which gives counties the freedom to separate the elections administrator position from the clerk and recorder duties – something that was first begun in Yellowstone County in 1979.

Larson said that problems with the elections department have been well publicized, and if a change is made, it will be done in a transparent way.

“We will be doing a job posting and a job description,” Larson said. “And the staff will be there, and it will be up to them if they want to stay.”

Merchant said she has been subjected to misinformation, hatred and vitriol as she tries to navigate a new job.

Larson told the Daily Montanan that while there were occasional hiccups in other elections prior to Merchant’s rocky tenure, the steady stream of problems, including requests from the Great Falls Public School District to make a change so that elections run more smoothly, require the county to shore up the problems.

“I wouldn’t say that we were error free, but when errors were brought forward, the issues were taken care of,” Larson said.

He said the errors that have cropped up during Merchant’s time in office haven’t been resolved in the same way.

Meanwhile, Grulkowski, herself under fire by citizens and fellow commissioners for how she’s handled her role as the county commission chairperson, said she supports the message of Merchant’s department.

“I do not agree with what (Briggs and Larson) are doing,” she said.

She said while other counties have opted to separate election duties from the role of clerk and recorder, no other county has chosen to do that immediately in the middle of the term, or without the support of the department.

She said before the commission makes such a move, the public should have more chance to comment on it.

Even more importantly, Grulkowski said that putting the elections department under the supervision of the county commissioners is a “terrible” idea because of the workload.

“We are not capable of taking on more work,” Grulkowski said. “We’re already in a very dangerous position without any relief valve.”

She said most residents don’t understand that commissioners run many departments; for example, Cascade County doesn’t have a chief accounting officer. She said in order not to violate the open meetings laws in Montana, she can’t even ask a fellow commissioner about finances because it constitutes a quorum, which is a legal meeting which must be noticed.

“To take on more would be a sure sign of failure,” Grulkowski said. “Why would we want more when we don’t have enough people to do our work already. Are you kidding me?”

Instead, she said Merchant wasn’t only elected, but wants the job.

“She wants to do the job. I don’t want the headache of elections in this day and age,” Grulkowski said.