NewsMontana Politics


Merchant defeats Fontana Moore in Clerk & Recorder race

Rina Fontana Moore and Sandra Merchant
Merchant petition denied
Posted at 2:12 PM, Nov 29, 2022

GREAT FALLS — Sandra Merchant will be the new Clerk & Recorder for Cascade County, after a recount that began on Monday and ended on Tuesday confirmed the results of the November 8, 2022, election.

Merchant defeated incumbent Rina Fontana Moore by 36 votes.

Joe Briggs, chair of the Cascade County Board of Commissioners, said on Tuesday that the recount utilized 28 members of the county staff to sort and count ballots, along with observers designated by both candidates as well as the County Commissioners and legal staff.

The results were tabulated and certified by the recount board at 9:59 a.m. on Tuesday, November 29, and the recount process officially adjourned at 10:10 am.

The final results of the hand recount:

  • Merchant: 14,342
  • Fontana Moore: 14,306
  • All Others: 740

We were curious about a comment that Merchant made about the recount not being lawful. She would not go into detail about, but we know that Merchant filed a civil lawsuit on November 25th, trying to prevent the recount from happening.

On Tuesday, Merchant said, "I'm glad that it came out in my favor, but I was not pleased with the way it was done… It was not in accordance with the law.” We asked Merchant what she meant by this, but she declined to elaborate.

A judge denied Merchant's request to halt the recount.

We looked up election recount laws in the state. A recount may be requested when the margin is less than 1%. The race between Merchant and Fontana Moore was within that margin, with the two separated by just 30 votes initially.

On November 22nd, the county held a special meeting regarding the potential for a recount. The following day, the commissioners office sent a formal notice regarding a ballot recount. In that notice they clearly stated when and where this recount would be held, how it would be conducted, and and made it clear the public was welcome.

Merchant petition denied
Judge denies Merchant's request to prevent recount

Briggs said in a news release that there were some slight differences in the totals between the machine count and the hand count due largely to the human factor in the manual counting of votes. Each ballot was counted at least twice and verified by at least two count teams but still differences existed between the manual counts generated by the teams in some precincts. In some cases, a third team was utilized to attempt to get to a matching number. None of the variances would have impacted the outcome however so ultimately, the differences were accepted.

Briggs also noted that other change between the machine count and the manual count were a series of ballots reviewed by the recount board that the machines had counted as an overvote. These would be ballots where a voter had marks in both ovals so the machine counted neither as valid. After a review of these ballots, the commission unanimously agreed that the voter had intended to vote for one or the other candidate and the ballot was counted accordingly.

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

The county had to spend roughly $5,000 on the recount process, but those involved believe it’s money well spent. Those overseeing the recount believe this will prove the efficiency of voting machines ability to count effectively.

Briggs has proposed that appointing an election official to handle the elections is the right way. “I think it's overdue because in Montana that's it's been an option for some time… and a number of the larger counties long since moved to where it's an appointed official.” Briggs said.

Merchant felt that being at the helm of the election process would create an accurate and fair counting process, a major point of emphasis in her campaign. Implementing an appointed election official by the county is not what she wants.

“I don't think it would be right,” said Merchant. "We must look into that legally.”

One question we had for Commissioner Briggs was the possibility of non-partisan races for some positions, such as the Clerk & Recorder. “I can see an argument for the commission being partisan because we do have some legislative authority. As far as the rest of the officials - and this is just me speaking - I don't see why those are partisan.”

Briggs on non-partisan races

Briggs noted, “Timing is always interesting, but this really has nothing to do with who got elected. The voter integrity, the election integrity. People were down here for months, as you may be aware at all of our commission meetings, raising the issue of why isn't there an elected official in charge of elections. I've been trying to get this changed since they started making their pitch, so this has nothing to do with who got elected. There are people claiming that, oh, we're just trying to strip power away from Sandra. That's got nothing to do with it. This has to do with what's the right way to do this."