A district court judge ruled Friday in favor of Republican Sandy Welch’s request for a recount in Montana’s superintendent of public instruction race.
Flathead County District Court Judge Stewart Stadler ruled that Welch must have her $115,000 bond paid in full by the end of the Dec. 11 business day. The bond is the estimated cost of a recount.
Welch’s campaign said its legal team will present an order to Stadler on Dec. 10 suggesting that the recount period begin on the fifth day following the order.
An attorney with the secretary of state’s office said an appeal will likely be filed by early next week, possibly setting the stage for more court proceedings as the end of the year approaches. Candidates are sworn into office in January.
According to the final vote tally, Welch trailed incumbent Democrat Denise Juneau by 2,231 votes out of more than 468,000 votes cast.
Welch, flanked by a team of attorneys, appeared before Stadler at a Dec. 7 hearing on her application for a manual recount. Secretary of State Linda McCulloch and the Montana State Canvass Board are listed as respondents on the application.
In her application, Welch alleged widespread errors by both voting machines and election judges, including instances in some counties where “election judges believed it proper to put stickers on ballots themselves to correct errors for voters rather issuing new ballots.”
Jorge Quintana, chief legal counsel for the secretary of state’s office, acknowledged errors were made in individual precincts but argued that Welch hadn’t demonstrated sufficient probable cause for a full statewide recount.
Quintana said even though there were initial errors in the counting process, the errors were addressed and there’s no evidence that any votes were not properly counted in the end. He suggested that Welch was “chasing ghosts.”
Amy Eddy, an attorney for Juneau, argued that Welch’s application was “full of inaccuracies and has nothing to do with whether the votes were counted accurately.”
Anita Woudenberg, an attorney from Bopp Law Firm representing Welch, said there were numerous errors that called into question the ballots’ validity and that the actions of election judges constituted probable cause.
“It’s considered sufficient evidence for purposes of probable cause finding if it can be shown that election judges did not comply with statutory requirements,” she said. “And that is what we have shown in this application.”
Bopp Law Firm is serving as Welch’s lead counsel. It is the Indiana-based firm of James Bopp Jr., an attorney best known for his role in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court campaign finance case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Also accompanying Welch at the hearing were Kalispell attorney Duncan Scott and Helena attorney Jim Brown, who has represented the conservative organization American Tradition Partnership.
Stadler listened to about a half-hour of oral arguments from both parties before taking an intermission and returning with a ruling.
Citing the number of counties that have allowed stickers to correct ballot errors, rather than use new ballots, Stadler said there was sufficient evidence that the practice was “universal.” The judge ruled that Welch had demonstrated probable cause that votes were not accurately counted.
Welch responded to the ruling in an interview immediately after the hearing.
“We’re really excited that the judge recognized that the issues we’re talking about really are systemic and we needed to recount statewide,” she said. “I would certainly expect that the issues that are brought up by this case are considered so they’re cleaned up prior to the next election.”
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