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Elections

Commissioners in Cascade County Remove Election Oversight from Fellow Republican

Sandra Merchant, who expressed doubt about the integrity of the election process during her 2022 campaign, lost her election oversight duties

By Associated Press
A roll of “I Voted” stickers. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A Montana clerk and recorder who expressed doubt about the integrity of the election process during her 2022 campaign lost her election oversight duties on Tuesday in a vote by county commissioners, reflecting some of the turmoil nationwide since conspiracy theories spread about the 2020 presidential election.

Hundreds of people attended the meeting at the Cascade County fairgrounds, and nearly 100 testified either in person or online. More than half the speakers supported Sandra Merchant continuing to oversee elections, at least until her four-year term was up in January 2027.

However, one person brought in a petition with 300 signatures in favor of a motion to transfer the election oversight to an appointed county employee, and the school district asked the county to remove election duties from the clerk and recorder’s office after issues with the school board election this year.

Commissioners Joe Briggs, James Larson and Rae Grulkowski and the clerk are Republicans. Briggs and Larson voted in favor of the motion and Grulkowski voted against it after listening to six hours of public comment.

The change takes effect immediately, but Merchant could challenge it in court.

Merchant said the motion to remove election duties from her office sought to disenfranchise the people who voted for her to serve as clerk, recorder and elections administrator.

Voters “weren’t electing somebody to take care of the records in the other office. They voted for me because of elections, and now their votes are being thrown out,” Merchant said in an interview on Monday.

Briggs said he proposed the resolution in response to complaints about the way several local elections have been run since Merchant was sworn in early this year. Lawsuits have been filed. The library board asked for court-appointed oversight for their mill levy election this summer.

“It’s been everything from people not getting ballots that should have to people who got ballots that shouldn’t have in these various elections, so there seems to be some systemic problems,” Briggs said Monday.

The issue needs to be settled before next year’s general election, Briggs said.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is seeking reelection in a race that could help determine the majority party in the Senate, and two U.S. House races will be on the ballot along with all the major statewide elected races, including governor.

Supporters of the motion said Tuesday that Merchant was in over her head and did not have the experience needed to run the elections office.

Opponents said she did not receive any help from her Democratic predecessor in learning the job and that she had been subjected to unjust ridicule, vitriol and harassment by those who opposed her successful campaign.

Opponents of the resolution said Merchant had cleared the names of about 11,000 inactive voters from the rolls, making it less likely that fraudulent votes would be cast. They also questioned how soon the county would be able to hire someone and how they would pay that person’s salary.

“You’re throwing taxpayer money at a problem that doesn’t even exist,” Wade Stout of Great Falls told commissioners, arguing that many people feel Merchant is doing an excellent job.

If Merchant is indeed incompetent, supporters argued, the county should hold a recall election or wait until the voters remove her from office in November 2026.

Nationally, there have been concerns about people in position to oversee elections who have expressed doubts about or rejected the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. In some cases, local election officials have been accused of providing access to confidential voting systems in search of evidence to show elections are being manipulated.

There is no evidence of voting machines being manipulated and no indication of widespread voter fraud that would have changed the outcome of the 2020 election.

The Cascade County resolution proposed that that election oversight be removed from the clerk and recorder’s office and be assumed by the county commission, which would appoint an election administrator. State law allows for such a change and a handful of Montana’s 56 counties have done it.

Merchant defeated Democratic clerk Rina Fontana Moore by fewer than 40 votes in November 2022.

Some Republicans had asked the county commission to ask Moore to recuse herself from administering the 2022 election since she was on the ballot, Briggs said. She declined to step down temporarily and Briggs proposed taking election duties away from the clerk and recorder’s office. However neither of the other two commission members would second his motion.

Before Merchant took office, Briggs again moved to transfer the election duties to a non-elected administrator and again, nobody else supported him..

Things changed, however, as problems piled up during this year’s elections.

“It went from being basically a structural issue, of someone in charge of an election should not be on the ballot, to broader questions about how things are being conducted here that didn’t exist previously,” Briggs said.

Campaigning for the office as former President Donald Trump continued to make baseless allegations that widespread fraud cost him a second term, Merchant supported hand counting ballots and opening up ballot tabulators to make sure they could not be connected to the internet.

“I think she ran on false premises,” said Diane Stinger of Great Falls. “I think she ran … stating that elections are corrupt and ‘I can clean them up,’ which was false. Elections are not corrupt.”

Merchant has not suggested opening tabulators or going to hand counts since she’s been elected, but her supporters haven’t given up, Briggs said.

In the resolution, Briggs wrote that the county recently spent $200,000 on ballot tabulators and “has received persistent criticism and concerns from certain members of the public who are politically aligned to the currently elected Clerk and Recorder that the county’s … tabulators are Wi-Fi connected, capable of being manipulated by foreign governments or other nefarious actors, and that the only way to remove such fears is for Cascade County to open the tabulators for public inspection.”

However, doing so would void warranties and render the tabulators worthless, he said.

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