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Protesters rally outside Cascade County elections office

Posted at 5:42 PM, Mar 20, 2023

GREAT FALLS — Armed with signs that read ‘Let Us Vote’, ‘Preserve Our Voting Rights’, and even some flat out asking for Cascade County Clerk & Recorder Sandra Merchant to resign, protesters gathered outside the Cascade County Courthouse Annex Monday afternoon.

Merchant defeated incumbent Rina Fontana Moore in the November 2022 election to become the new Cascade County Clerk & Recorder.

Rina Fontana Moore and Sandra Merchant
Rina Fontana Moore and Sandra Merchant

The protesters say they are concerned about the fate of several 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.”

Just down the street, a smaller group gathered 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.”

There are several elections coming up that could be impacted. School elections, including the Great Falls district, are scheduled for May 2nd.

The Great Falls Public Library has also scheduled a special mill levy election for June.

An email from Merchant to library director Susie McIntyre cited the closing of IPS, redistricting, and a short-staffed elections office as making it difficult to get the ballots mailed out on May 17th for the June 6th election.

Protesters say this issue could have easily been avoided.

“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.”

McIntyre and Merchant were scheduled to meet again Monday afternoon to continue their discussions on conducting the election.

Running as a Republican, Merchant narrowly defeated Rina Fontana-Moore in November to win the Clerk & Recorder position, which also oversees county elections.

Moore said even if poll elections are held, most county voters will be hard-pressed.

Rally against and for Sandra Merchant in Great Falls (March 20, 2023)

“87% of Cascade County's voters vote by absentee process,” said Moore. “So whether she has a poll election or not, those people still need to get their ballot in the mail.”

Moore said even with the closure of IPS, election issues shouldn’t come as a surprise: “I would hope that the new clerk would step up and fill her statutory obligations like we did. We accepted the mail ballot plan for the city, for the school districts that are involved. We did that. You have to do that a year ahead of time.”

MTN contacted Merchant for comment, but she said was too busy. Merchant is scheduled to discuss the election concerns with county commissioners in a meeting Thursday afternoon.

(UPDATE, MARCH 21) Merchant released the following statement in an email on Tuesday morning:

Conflicting information has been presented throughout the Cascade County Community. Our office will hold the upcoming May 2nd, 2023, School Election, and it will be completed as directed by the Montana Secretary of State. All Absentee Requested Ballots will be mailed on April 17th, 2023, as prescribed by the Montana Secretary of State.

We will update you as we get more information.

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