Clerical Error in Kalispell Election Leaves County Unsure of Path Forward

Without precedent for how to address an election administration error that disenfranchised up to 1,413 voters, county waits for Kalispell resident to contest election process

By Micah Drew
Voters enter a polling station at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell for the midterm elections on Nov. 8, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead County commissioners at their Tuesday meeting voted 2-1 to certify the canvass of the three municipal elections held earlier this month but got hung up on how to address a clerical error that assigned 1,413 voters in Kalispell to the wrong city ward.

Officials from the Flathead County Elections Department announced on Nov. 7, Election Day, that an undetermined number of voters in Kalispell had received the wrong ballot after previous precinct and ward boundaries were not updated in their system to reflect changes approved by the Kalispell City Council in 2021.

Election Administrator Debbie Pierson told the county commissioners that a total of 1,413 voters were impacted by the clerical error — 8% of eligible voters in the city — but only 176 voters cast incorrect ballots. The underlying issue is that Montana Code Annotated (MCA) doesn’t include any direct mechanism for redoing an election due to such an error, Pierson said.

“It’s an interesting case because it’s not like we’re going to go and argue that it needs to be redone,” Pierson said. “We agree it should be redone, but there needs to be a mechanism to get it before a judge.”

The canvassing process before the commissioners involves certifying the number of votes cast and that the elections department correctly tabulated the results. The commissioners can request a recount of cast ballots if they believe there may be a discrepancy, but they cannot call for the election to be redone, Pierson said.

According to Pierson, the situation is unprecedented in Montana, and conversations with the Secretary of State and Attorney General did not identify a best path forward.

Chad Graham, the Kalispell City Council president, gave public comment during the meeting on behalf himself as a private citizen and city council member, and Mayor Mark Johnson, indicating a desire to redo the election.

“It’s our belief that the outcome of the way it was administered is contrary to the basic tenets of representative government,” Graham said. “What I mean by that is we have four wards, and we have people who voted in certain sections of the ward voting for people who will not be currently representing them and vice versa. I also look at this as something that affects the candidates. They ran great campaigns and one of the problems with that is they put time, materials, effort and funds into areas they shouldn’t have been and didn’t do it where they should have been.”

The 176 ballots that were affected broke down as follows:

  • 112 voted ballots for Ward 1 where the voter should have received a Ward 2 ballot
  • 12 voted ballots for Ward 1 where the voter should have received a Ward 3 ballot
  • 37 voted ballots for Ward 2 where the voter should have received a Ward 3 ballot
  • 6 voted ballots for Ward 3 where the voter should have received a Ward 2 ballot
  • 9 voted ballots for Ward 3 where the voter should have received a Ward 4 ballot

In Ward 1, incumbent Kari Gabriel won with 483 votes to challenger Wes Walker’s 403. In Ward 2, incumbent Sam Nunnally won with 530 votes to challenger Gabe Dillon’s 421. The results of both elections could be altered, as the impacted votes are within the margin of victory.

In Ward 3, Ryan Hunter won re-election over Kevin Aurich, 607 votes to 235, while Ward 4 was an uncontested election that saw Sid Daoud retain his seat.

Nunnally, who also serves as the County Fairgrounds Manager, gave public comment in favor of redoing the election.

“Election integrity is more important, in my opinion, than my possible win in this election,” Nunnally told the commissioners.

Walker, the unsuccessful Ward 1 candidate, told the Beacon that he was pleased the county took full responsibility both in acknowledging its mistake and recognizing the seriousness of the error.

“I’m not eager to lose again, but it’s certainly important that people have their say in the elections. If there’s a person on your ballot, it needs to be the person who would actually represent you,” Walker said, adding that he has no plans to concede his race. “In a low turnout race, it’s a pretty significant number of votes affected.”

Commissioner Randy Brodehl, who voted against certifying the vote count, said he did not feel approving the canvass was the right thing to do, as some residents might interpret the move as an endorsement by commissioners that the election was carried out correctly.

Pierson and Commissioner Pam Holmquist both pointed out that Montana law states the canvass board’s approval only indicates that an election was held, votes were cast and they were correctly counted. Brodehl remained the lone dissenting vote.

All three county commissioner indicated their desire to have the election redone, but remained unsure of how to make that happen.

“We just don’t have the answers,” Pierson said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t’ follow through and try to find a way [to redo the election] but we’re trying to look at what is presented in law and there is very little that is.”

Ultimately, Pierson said that as best as Montana law could be interpreted, a candidate or any elector in Kalispell could contest the election results, sending the decision to redo the election to a judge.

Brodehl stated that as a Kalispell resident, he would contest the result.

“I don’t want to put this on the shoulders of the candidates, because they get a spotlight shined on them that could affect future outcomes,” Brodehl said. “It’s not right to do that to them when they’re not the ones who made this mistake. It belongs to the county.”

A candidate or elector has five business days to submit a complaint, according to Pierson, who added that the county would cover all costs of administering the reelection. It’s estimated the full process would take 60 days, and the election would likely involve wards one, two and three, as ward four was uncontested.

“This is the best solution to not a great situation,” Pierson said.

This article has been corrected to clarify that Kalispell City Council President Chad Graham was speaking on behalf of himself, as a private citizen and council member, as well as for Mayor Johnson, not on behalf of the full city council.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.