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Sunday, May 19, 2024
Gov & Politics

Montana County Commission tables election canvass

Cascade County Commissioners hit pause this week on completing the canvass for the recent municipal election over questions of ballot counts out of Belt and Cascade.

Taking about the same time it would to roast an 18-pound turkey, the commission hand-tallied the election machine’s results per precinct, in what former county officials have called an unprecedented nearly five-hour exercise Wednesday night. This method of canvassing differs from how other counties canvass, and at least one expert said it wasn’t effectively checking results.

Some observers, including Great Falls Republican Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, thought the exercise was an example of the law being followed. Others, including a former Cascade County elections worker, saw it as a departure from norms and another example of dysfunction in the office.

The commission will schedule the meeting to continue the canvass after conferring with the Secretary of State’s office regarding the ballot reports out of Belt and Cascade.

Businesswoman-turned-Clerk-and-Recorder Sandra Merchant took office in January in a sea change after narrowly defeating 16-year incumbent Rina Moore last year despite no experience as an elections official. A pending lawsuit against Merchant alleges she mishandled the flood and irrigation district elections in May, and separately, the Great Falls Public School District requested the county assume the duties of the elections office citing lack of communication from Merchant during its election in May.

According to a couple of participants who attended the meeting to canvass, the small commission office was at first overflowing with residents. But as the hours of commissioners hand-counting results waned on, more and more residents departed before being able to give public comment, and some left written remarks critiquing how long the canvass was taking.

In an interview, Moore said typically after an election, the Clerk and Recorder runs a report after ballots are accepted into the statewide ElectMT program that shows how many were voided and undeliverable, but most importantly, how many ballots were accepted. Elections officials have to ensure the number of accepted ballots in the ElectMT system matches the number of ballots that went through the local tabulator.

“And if they don’t, something is wrong with the election,” Moore said.

During the canvass, Elections Office staff present the final matched tabulations and read off the vote totals for each municipality, and the board of canvassers certifies those results. The certification process in the county for the municipal election in 2021 took less than half an hour.

But Jane Weber, former Cascade County Commissioner and co-founder of the Election Protection Committee, a resident-organized watchdog group, noted the canvass diverged from the usual process even before it started.

Weber said in her written testimony never in her 10 years on the commission had she witnessed a canvass where commissioners didn’t get necessary reports from the Clerk and Recorder prior to the meeting.

“This process today was a sham designed to outlast the public who came to make comment. I’m embarrassed and deeply troubled for any future elections in this county chamber,” Weber said.

Kyler Baker, who previously worked in the Cascade County Elections Office, stayed in person to express his worries over how the canvass was handled.

“Looking forward to next year, when this is a possibly two-page ballot, this could be very concerning,” Baker said.

Not everyone felt this way. Some, on the eve of Thanksgiving, openly expressed gratitude for the commissioners going through the process.

Rep. Sheldon-Galloway’s 10 year-old granddaughter, Echo, stood at the podium before the commissioners and said, “Thank you for having election integrity.”

Sheldon-Galloway shortly after got up to the mic as well and took the moment to defend Merchant amidst calls for the new Clerk and Recorder to be replaced.

“If you don’t like the process, it’s the law. She follows the law and that is why we voted her in,” Sheldon-Galloway said. “We wanted change, and today we followed the law, and today we started to see those changes happening. So I thank you, Sandra.”

Commissioner Joe Briggs said he would motion to table the canvass after noticing a difference in ballots reported as processed through the tabulator, the vote counting machine, and the number checked back through the statewide ElectMT system in both Cascade and Belt.

Merchant suggested some of those discrepancies could be ballots with deficiencies or other routine issues, but that still left the totals different; in Cascade, an ElectMT report showed 126 total, but 162 ballots were run through the machine.

Merchant also said the issue could have been Cascade and Belt held an in-person poll election and theorized those votes could have been separated, but Briggs said they should still be showing up in the statewide system’s report. Moore said Merchant could have overlooked putting those in-person ballots in the ElectMT system.

Moore, who helped prepare for previous canvasses prior to losing re-election, explained the tabulator results and ElectMT database don’t “talk to each other,” so votes from the polls that were counted potentially weren’t added into the ElectMT system – resulting in different ballot totals in the separate reports.

Moore said in order to “balance” an election, those numbers from the vote counting machine and from the state’s ElectMT need to add up, but she believes Merchant hadn’t taken the steps to make sure those numbers aligned.

Moore compared it to the self-checkout line at the grocery store.

“You have 50 items in your cart, and you scan 25 of them. All she did was hand the cash register receipt to them, and they hand-added it up,” Moore said. “But you have to compare it to the items in the cart. You didn’t scan 25 items in the cart, so how are you going to balance?”

She said she had never seen anything like this in her tenure.

Briggs at one point in the hours-long count said the commission was “just checking the math for the computer at this point” rather than actually reconciling the reports.

The meeting Wednesday was already past the Secretary of State’s two-week canvassing deadline. The timing was a point of contention among commissioners earlier in the week after Merchant attempted to schedule the meeting for Monday, which would have foregone the required 48-hour public notice.

Briggs also asked Merchant for a report of how many ballots were returned by neighborhood council, as the council boundaries are different from the precinct boundaries, which Merchant at first said was information already presented.

But Briggs said she was giving him “macro” totals.

“Are you saying that you’ve got no way to reconcile, on a neighborhood council level, the number of ballots that were sent out, received back and counted?” Briggs said.

Merchant said she could run more reports.

“…if there is a report that does that,” she said.

After the meeting, Moore told the Daily Montanan she believes Merchant doesn’t know ElectMT produces the report Briggs wanted.

“She has admitted in front of everybody now that the only thing she has done in an election is run the report the numbers out of the count machine and handed them to the commissioners,” Moore said.

That day, Commissioners, acting as the canvass board, spent four hours in near silence hand tallying the machine’s precinct results.

The vote to table was unanimous, and it is unclear when the meeting to finish the canvass will be set.

Commissioners will convene for their regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday. They will take a second and final vote on whether to restructure how the board chairperson is selected, which could lead to the end of current chairperson and Merchant ally Rae Grulkowski’s leadership on the commission.

Grulkowski and Merchant have been connected to conspiracy-led movements, including election denial, in Cascade County.

This article from the Daily Montanan appears in this post, with permission, under a Creative Commons BY ND-NC 4.0 license.

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