County Election Administrator Files Petition to Annul Kalispell Election

Election officials seek to redo Kalispell election after administration error disenfranchised up to 1,413 voters

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

Flathead County Election Administrator Debbie Pierson filed a petition on Dec. 1 in Flathead County District Court to annul the results of the 2023 municipal election in Kalispell, citing a clerical error that caused some voters to receive incorrect ballots.

If the petition is granted by the court, the county election department will conduct a new election for the four City Council races impacted by the error. The redo election would occur early next year.

“Integrity throughout every step of the election process is paramount. To this degree, I feel it is essential that the election is redone, and ballots are issued according to current ward boundaries,” Pierson said in a press release. “It is vitally important that the public is confident that fair, accurate, and transparent elections are being conducted in Flathead County.”

The county election department first noticed the error in the week prior to the Nov. 7 election, according to the petition, when some absentee voters reported receiving ballots for incorrect wards. Further investigation revealed that the ward boundaries approved by the City of Kalispell in December 2021 had not been entered into the election system. The public was first made aware of the issue on Nov. 6, when Kalispell city manager Doug Russell reported the error to the city council.

The error impacted a total of 1,413 voters — 8% of eligible voters in the city — but only 176 voters cast incorrect ballots. However, the court filing notes that it is impossible to determine the exact effect, as some voters may have heard of the error at the city council meeting, or realized they had an incorrect ballot and chosen not to vote.

Earlier this month, discussions over how to proceed dominated a meeting of the Flathead County Commissioners when they approved a canvass of the election results. Without any precedent in the state for how to challenge an election due to a departmental error, it was determined that an individual voter would likely have to contest the election within five days of the canvassing process.

However, in her petition submitted Friday, Pierson cites a provision in Montana Code Annotated which states there is a one-year statute of limitations to request the annulment of an election.

“This statute states that there is a right to petition for annulment and ask the election be set aside, but it does not clearly specify that an Election Administrator may do so. However, because of the manifest error in the election process for the City of Kalispell, the Election Administrator feels it is her duty to attempt to annul this election and conduct a new one,” according to the court filing.

The 176 voted ballots that were affected by the error 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.

Should the petition be granted, the four city council races will be put back on the ballot, but results of the uncontested race for a municipal judge, which is a city-wide position and was not impacted by ward discrepancies, will remain valid. The county election department will cover all costs of conducting a new election.