GREAT FALLS — Sandra Merchant, the Cascade County Clerk & Recorder, discussed plans for upcoming elections during a forum on Friday, March 31, 2023 - watch the video above.
The presentation was originally scheduled for the County Commission chambers, but was moved to the Family Living Center at Montana ExpoPark due to increased public interest.
“The objectives of this presentation are to provide full transparency, clear up confusion about the changes, and to explain the process that it involves,” Merchant said in her opening statement.
Merchant explained that shortly after she took office in January, Innovative Postal Services, the Great Falls company that handles county mail and ballots, closed.
Her office initially found a replacement business to handle election mail in Great Falls, but on March 3rd she was informed that they could not handle the volume and declined to accept the contract from the county.
Merchant said she had two options at that stage. The office could find an out-of-town service to print and handle election mail, or move printing and mailing in-house.
She chose option two, citing precedent from around the state and the excess travel and security measures that would be required from transporting ballots from city to city.
“I spoke with elections offices around the state, and I found out that the majority of counties in this state do not use a mailing service,” she said. “A lot of counties are smaller and it’s easier for them, but a lot of counties are even larger than ours.”
Due to the time constraints she faced and the level of staffing in her office, she decided to move upcoming elections from all-mail ballots to in-person polling with an absentee ballot option.
“I didn’t come into this thinking we were going to do anything different,” she said. “And it was IPS closing that made the change. I am working on the mail election as planned, until I could not find a mailing service.”
Approximately 87% of registered voters in Cascade County vote absentee. Those ballots will be mailed as scheduled for the May 2nd election on April 17th.
Following Merchant’s presentation, several members of the public came to the podium to offer pointed questions - including officials affected by the change in election format.
The Great Falls Public School system is scheduled to conduct a school board election on May 2nd.
GFPS superintendent Tom Moore told Merchant that the board budgets $42k to pay for the elections, and that there have been no communications from Merchant’s office about who will incur any associated costs from changing election format, and how much that be.
Merchant could not provide an answer, stating she would consult state law and get back to him estimates.
Moore said communication with Merchant’s office was lacking during the election planning process and offered assistance to make sure the school elections run smoothly and have high integrity.
“I think that our taxpayers who elected our trustees and who elected you and the commissioners expect our government agencies to work collaboratively together,” Moore said. “I think (GFPS) has worked really hard to serve our trustees well at establishing relationships and working with our government entities in collaboration. But it doesn’t feel quite like that in this particular situation.”
A mill levy for the Great Falls Public Library is scheduled for June, but in correspondence between Merchant and library director Susie McIntyre - Merchant had indicated that the election would be difficult to conduct and hoped to move it to another date.
Merchant walked back that message recently, saying that the mill levy election will proceed as scheduled. But there were still lingering questions about associated costs from library board trustee Whitney Olson.
Olson said an in-person/absentee elections would cost more than an all-mail election. Polling places would require venue rental, additional judges and staff, and security from the Sheriff’s Office. She asked if Merchant could explain the difference in costs between an all-mail ballot and hybrid (in-person/absentee) election.
“Not at this time,” Merchant responded.
Olson also asked what costs the library would be required to pay and what would be covered by the elections office. Merchant said she would have to look at state laws and that she’d get back to the board with figures.
The meeting answered some questions but raised quite a few more. Merchant asked any members of the public with concerns to visit her office.
“I am a citizen of Cascade County and I also vote here. I put my ballot in the box just like everybody else does,” Merchant said. “And I also want fair, transparent, and secure elections. And I want to know my vote counts and I’m sure you all would too. And I want to make sure your votes count.”
Merchant defeated incumbent Rina Fontana Moore in the November 2022 election to become the new Cascade County Clerk & Recorder.
On Monday, March 20, protesters gathered outside the Cascade County Courthouse Annex to protest Merchant's handling of the office since taking over.
The protesters said they are concerned about upcoming elections after the company that normally handled mail ballots, Innovative Postal Services, closed down, putting absentee and mail-in ballots in jeopardy.
“So far, we have not heard much,” said protester Grayce Holzheimer. “We've only heard that she is not going to be implementing mail absentee ballots or doing the levy for the library.”
“You know, she has had every opportunity to make this happen and her issues that she is putting forth, those are those are deflection,” said protester Jasmine Taylor. “This is, at best, incompetence and at worst, intentional malfeasance.”
A smaller group also gathered on March 20 in support of Merchant, who has told stakeholders a poll election might be held instead of a mail-in ballot.
“According to Montana Code Annotated, mail-in ballots are not required,” said Merchant supporter Sharon Thompson. “So what she's doing is fine.”
“You used to have an infrastructure where we went into schools, fire halls and churches and voted,” said Steve Vinnedge, another Merchant supporter. “We had crews in every town. We had boxes. We had a system. And it was counted by the next morning.”
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