GREAT FALLS — Election integrity is the talk of Cascade County. Since Cascade County Clerk & Recorder Sandra Merchant was elected in November 2022, MTN News has received mixed opinions from community members about how she is doing her job.
On Tuesday, April 18, 2023, MTN News received a call from a concerned Cascade County voter that resides on the southwest side of town. She and her husband received double Great Falls Public Schools ballots.
The two asked to remain anonymous, in fear of retribution from the community for speaking up.
They visited MTN News to show that between the two of them, they received a total of six ballots.
“Four of them are for the school. My husband and I each got two. The other two are for our flood district,” she explained.
The couple opened the wife's ballots prior to arriving at KRTV to ensure the suspected school ballots were identical. They were.
The husband saved his two school ballots for them to open at KRTV; we confirmed that each registered voter received two identical ballots for the same school board election.
“My question is, what if I send the ballots in and I've changed my mind? I could send the other ballot with another name on it. And which one are they going to keep? And what we're really going to throw out,” explained the husband.
One of the many questions the two have for the Cascade County Elections Office.
Late Tuesday morning, the wife called Merchant’s office to ask about the ballots. The representative, who she didn’t get the name of, said she would talk to her supervisor and call her back within the hour. That didn’t happen.
She called an hour and a half later and disclosed she would be recording the phone call, per Montana state law.
Merchant, who identified herself on the phone, would only say, “Come down to the office and we can take a look at it.”
The wife responded, “No, what I’m asking is why would I have two school ballots? Can I vote for both of them?”
Merchant later in the phone call said, “I can’t do anything over the phone.”
The transparency of the Cascade County Elections Office is being challenged as the couple wants to know how this could happen.
A response wasn’t given - similar to the experience of MTN News.
I was sent at mid-morning to the Elections Office to visit with Sandra Merchant to follow up on a complaint from Monday, April 17, 2023, regarding the time at which mail-in ballots were sent out. I was able to speak with Merchant almost immediately.
She was personable and willing to have a conversation face-to-face.
Merchant said that she "doesn’t know what to say,” adding, “Those people [election deniers] will continue to say what they want.”
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To follow up on the April 17 complaint, a group of people identified as the Election Protection Committee spoke with me about how the Montana Secretary of State’s Office advised that ballots should be mailed out by 5 pm on April 17 - which is 15 days prior to the election.
I arrived on the scene Monday, and no ballots were being loaded into the Cascade County transport vehicle. It wasn’t until approximately 5:52 pm that a paid employee of the office, Devereaux Biddick, and other personnel moved the van to the other side of the building near the Great Falls Public Library.
They then began loading the van with ballots while Pete Fontana and Jane Weber, two members of the Election Protection Committee, watched and recorded video to ensure ballots were being loaded.
I have no proof that the Secretary of State’s Office advised the EPC that ballots “should” be mailed by 5 pm. What I did confirm was that after I followed the van to the southwest side Post Office, it arrived, and the van left the premise after 7:30 pm.
The Election Protection Committee also claims that the people helping stuff ballots on April 17 were “volunteers” – I have no proof of those allegations.
When I followed up the next day, I asked Merchant if those staff members were properly vetted. She assured me that she followed the protocol and proper procedures.
While that 10-minute conversation carried on, two other women entered the office and defended Merchant and asked what I was doing there.
During that side conversation, Biddick called Cascade County Attorney Joshua Racki to the office when I requested an on-camera interview to clear the air for the public.
Merchant continued to decline.
One of the two women asked, “Why don’t you come back when Sandra is ready to talk?”
Josh Racki arrived, and he and Merchant spoke privately in their office. As he left, MTN stopped Racki to ask questions on the vetting of mail-in ballot personnel; he declined to comment, and he advised me to talk to Merchant.
I also asked about statutes regarding timing issues to when the ballots were mailed - here is what he sent me:
- Section 13-13-205(1)(b), MCA
13-13-205. When ballots to be available for absentee voting. (1) Except as provided in subsection (2), the election administrator shall ensure that ballots for a polling place election are available as follows:
(a) for an election conducted on a primary or general election day:
(i) 30 days prior to election day for absentee voting in person;
(ii) 25 days prior to the election for mailing ballots to absentee voters; and
(b) 20 days prior to election day for a special purpose district or school district election, except that ballots for a conservation district election held on a primary or general election day must be available as provided in subsection (1)(a).
(2) A federal election ballot requested by an absent uniformed services or overseas elector pursuant to Title 13, chapter 21, must be sent to the elector as soon as the ballot is printed but not later than 45 days in advance of the election.
Section 13-13-214(1)(b), MCA
13-13-214. Mailing absentee ballot to elector -- delivery to person other than elector. (1) (a) Except as provided in 13-13-213 [leg.mt.gov] and in subsection (1)(c) of this section, the election administrator shall mail, postage prepaid, to each legally registered elector and provisionally registered elector from whom the election administrator has received a valid absentee ballot application under 13-13-211 [leg.mt.gov] and 13-13-212 [leg.mt.gov] whatever official ballots are necessary in a manner that conforms to postal regulations to require the return rather than forwarding of ballots.
(b) The election administrator shall mail the ballots in a manner that conforms to the deadlines established for ballot availability in 13-13-205[leg.mt.gov].
(c) The election administrator may deliver a ballot in person to an individual other than the elector if:
(i) the elector has designated the individual, either by a signed letter or by making the designation on the application form in a manner prescribed by the secretary of state or pursuant to 13-1-116 [leg.mt.gov];
(ii) the individual taking delivery of the ballot on behalf of the elector verifies, by signature, receipt of the ballot;
(iii) the election administrator believes that the individual receiving the ballot is the designated person; and
(iv) the designated person has not previously picked up ballots for four other electors.
(2) The election administrator shall enclose with the ballots:
(a) a secrecy envelope, free of any marks that would identify the voter; and
(b) a signature envelope for the return of the ballot. The signature envelope must be self-addressed by the election administrator and an affirmation in the form prescribed by the secretary of state must be printed on the back of the signature envelope.
(3) The election administrator shall ensure that the ballots provided to an absentee elector are marked as provided in 13-13-116 [leg.mt.gov] and shall remove the stubs from the ballots, keeping the stubs in numerical order with the application for absentee ballots, if applicable, or in a precinct envelope or container for that purpose.
(4) Instructions for voting must be enclosed with the ballots. Instructions for primary elections must include disposal instructions for unvoted ballots. The instructions must include information concerning the type or types of writing instruments that may be used to mark the absentee ballot. The instructions must include information regarding the use of the secrecy envelope and the use of the signature envelope. The election administrator shall include a voter information pamphlet with the instructions if:
(a) a statewide ballot issue appears on the ballot mailed to the elector; and
(b) the elector requests a voter information pamphlet.
Section 20-20-401(2), MCA
20-20-401. Trustees' election duties -- ballot certification. (1) The trustees are the general supervisors of school elections unless the trustees request and the county election administrator agrees to conduct a school election under 20-20-417 [leg.mt.gov].
(2) Not less than 30 days before an election, the clerk of the district shall certify the ballot by preparing a certified list of the names of all candidates entitled to be on the ballot subject to 13-37-126 [leg.mt.gov] and certifying the official wording for each ballot issue. The candidates' names must appear on the ballot in accordance with 13-12-203 [leg.mt.gov]. The clerk shall arrange for printing the ballots. Ballots for absentee voting must be printed and available at least 20 days before the election. Names of candidates on school election ballots need not be rotated.
(3) Before the opening of the polls, the trustees shall cause each polling place to be supplied with the ballots and supplies necessary to conduct the election.
Racki stated in his email: “Following up on our conversation this morning. I have researched the issue of mailing the ballots prior to 5:00 pm. I can find nothing in the MCA to support that proposition.”
I waited in the office to see if Merchant would eventually comment and in that time the office staff was pleasant and created conversation, but as phone calls rang in, Biddick said to callers: “We’re not getting much done, we have a news reporter sitting in our office… We’re saving the county so much money, but that’s not being reported.”
Following that phone call with someone, I couldn’t identify who was on the other line. I asked if Biddick would elaborate on the money the office is saving the county.
No response was taken as a “No.”
During the nearly two hours that I sat in the office, voters dropped ballots off - one was angry that the ballot he received didn’t fit in the pink secrecy envelope they were distributed.
Biddick took the ballot in the back to check and told him it was good to go.
The voter said, “It’s not going to read it.”
She assured the voter it was okay. He submitted his ballot and proceeded out of the office saying, “You Republicans will do anything to screw up the election.”
Biddick quietly took the complaint.
I spoke with Pete Fontana, a representative for the Election Protection Committee, about the ballot’s number of folds.
“They are folded incorrectly," he replied.
Fontana explained that the barcode on the edge of the ballot is how the machine reads each vote. If it isn’t folded correctly, the machine won’t record the vote, meaning those votes will need to be counted by hand.
This isn’t the only concern from Fontana as the EPC continues to scrutinize the process.
“Part of the process is signature verification. When those ballots come back, they must do signature verification. They scan the barcode in. I'm not sure if those barcodes are different when they're printed. Two separate labels. If the barcodes are different, there's a very good chance it could vote twice.”
He says the issue isn’t voting twice, it’s that the barcodes could be different with duplicate ballots.
According to the Secretary of State’s Office, they shared in an email: “Montana voters may only cast one ballot in each election for which they're eligible. It is a crime for anyone to attempt to vote on more than one ballot. If a voter has questions or concerns about the ballot they have received, such as a potential administrative error, they should contact the county elections office to rectify the concerns.”
The couple who shared their duplicate ballots with me still have questions that need to be answered, as does the rest of the community.
Since the story aired, we received numerous accounts at KRTV of double ballots for registered voters and some ballots are arriving unsealed.
“I'd like to know why there aren't any checks and balances here. How can something like this happen? And nobody I mean, nobody in that staff checks to make sure that things aren't being doubled or sent out incorrectly,” said the wife.
One of her ballots arrived unsealed as well.
This is going to be a developing story as the Election Protection Committee and others express concerns about the management of elections.
There are two other upcoming elections.
The EPC is asking anyone who received double ballots to contact them, or if there is concern about their precinct etc.
Here is its call to action: If you find any irregularity, send a photograph of both your envelope and ballot to firstname.lastname@example.org immediately. Then, contact the Secretary of State’s office at 406-444-2034 to report the problem. Of course, also notify Merchant in the Election Office at 406-454-6803 so the problem can be corrected.
The Election Protection Committee also has a petition circulating asking Merchant to resign; click here to see it.
MTN News is committed to providing you with as much information as possible about the elections. I and MTN News will continue to ask Merchant for comment - at this time it is unclear if that will happen.