City Councilor Joins Suit to Annul Kalispell City Election

Newly re-elected Kalispell City Councilor Ryan Hunter said it would be unfair to discount results in all four contested wards

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

Newly re-elected Kalispell City Councilor Ryan Hunter says a clerical error that caused some voters to receive the wrong ballots should be rectified, but he’s asking a Flathead County judge to exempt certain wards from the redo election — including his own.

Joining as an intervenor in a lawsuit filed Dec. 1 by Flathead County Election Administrator Debbie Pierson, Hunter wrote that he agrees the county should annul the results of and hold another election for two of the city’s four contested wards, where incumbents eked out wins by narrow margins that the administrative mistake could have upset. However, Hunter said it would be unfair to discount results in the two other wards, where candidates won more decisively.

“While the Flathead County mistake in conducting the election could have been determinative in the outcome of the Ward 1 and Ward 2 Kalispell City Council races, the mistake could not have impacted the outcome of either the Ward 3 or Ward 4 races,” Hunter wrote in his motion to intervene in a petition to annul the 2023 municipal election and hold a redo. “The County’s petition to annul the election greatly harms me as a candidate in the Ward 3 City Council election. I will have to raise and spend money and expend considerable time and effort to run another election. The outcome of the election may change, not because of the County’s mistake, but because of voter confusion about another election causing a dramatic reduction in voter turnout.”

According to the lawsuit, the county election department first noticed a clerical error affecting the election in the week prior to the Nov. 7 election, 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. The original petition 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.

However, as Hunter pointed out in his filing, the number of incorrectly voted ballots is only enough to alter two of the four elections for city council.

In Ward 1, incumbent Kari Gabriel defeated challenger Wes Walker by 80 votes, while in Ward 2 incumbent Sam Nunnally won over challenger Gabe Dillon by 127 votes. The results of both elections could be altered, as the impacted votes are within the margin of victory.

In contrast, Hunter’s Ward 3 election saw the incumbent councilor defeat Kevin Aurich by 372 votes — a significantly larger margin than would be changed by the total number of known 176 incorrectly voted ballots. Ward 4 was an uncontested election that saw Sid Daoud retain his seat.

Hunter said that he spent roughly $4,000 and 98 hours campaigning for the original election, and having to raise additional money and organize another campaign would “not only be an injustice to me as the previously winning candidate, but also an injustice to the nearly 72% of voters who voted to re-elect me.”

He added that while the county election department will cover all costs of conducting a new election, only redoing two wards would minimize the impact to taxpayers.

Should the petition be granted in full or in part, the city council races will be put back on the ballot early next year. The 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.