On Jan. 2, the first Kalispell City Council meeting of 2024 was called to order by Mayor Mark Johnson. The first order of business was the swearing in of council members starting new terms this year.
“Can I have the four council members who were elected in the last election please step forward,” Johnson asked. “At least, we think you were elected.”
Everyone in the council chambers chuckled as the councilors, all incumbents, swore their oaths, sat back in their seats and returned to work.
For the time being, it’s business as usual with city council, even as November’s municipal election remains in limbo, awaiting a judge’s decision whether to annul the results or not.
Just days before the Nov. 7 election, Flathead County election department officials discovered a clerical error that led to nearly 1,500 voters receiving incorrect ballots. Further investigation revealed that the ward boundaries approved by the city of Kalispell in 2021 had not been properly entered into the election system.
Of the 1,413 voters with incorrect ballots — roughly 8% of the city’s eligible voters — only 176 cast their votes. Regardless, county Election Administrator Debbie Pierson filed a petition in Flathead County District Court on Dec. 1 to annul the results.
The Ward 1 and Ward 2 races were won by a margin within the number of ballots cast in error, but Pierson requested the court annul all results and allow the county to run a new election for all four wards.
Nearly two months later, the court has yet to hand down a decision.
Because the Flathead County Commissioners certified the results of the election, as held, were accurately tabulated, the four winners are considered legitimate unless a court rules otherwise.
Kalispell City Manager Doug Russell said that if the court does determine the election results should be annulled and a new election held, the city will have to consult with the legal department to determine whether the sitting councilors could continue to serve during that interim period. “But we’re just waiting to hear something,” he said.
While Pierson’s petition to the district court requested all four Ward elections be conducted again, Kalispell city councilor Ryan Hunter filed as an intervenor in the suit, asking that only Ward 1 and Ward 2 results be annulled. Hunter, who represents Ward 3, won re-election over Kevin Aurich 607 votes to 235. In Ward 4, Sid Daoud retained his seat in an uncontested race.
Back-and-forth filings by Pierson and Hunter have laid out the reasoning for a full, or partial, annulment.
“There is no way to determine how this public information may have influenced an eligible voters’ decision on whether or not to vote,” Pierson reiterated in a Jan. 11 motion for judgment. “It is not possible to determine the full impact of this error on the election.”
Hunter responded on Jan. 18, calling Pierson’s assertion “patently false” for the Ward 3 and Ward 4 election.
“Consistent historic turnout percentages for Kalispell municipal elections allows us to conclude definitively the full impact the error had on the outcome of the Ward 3 election, which is to say that the full impact is no impact at all on which candidate won,” according to the court document. The uncontested Ward 4 election also could not have been affected.
Hunter adds that to his knowledge, voter turnout in the last decade has never exceeded 30% in a city election, and for the clerical error to overcome his margin of victory there would have to be voter turnout of more than 79%.
In addition to claiming personal harm “in time, money and effort” required to run another campaign, the county has yet to indicate how much tax-payer money will be needed to rectify the county’s mistake, according to Hunter, who wishes to minimize the expense of a new election.
According to county election manager Adrienne Chmelik, if the judge annuls the election results it will take a minimum of 85 days to administer a new election from start to finish. The timeline could be affected by upcoming school, special district and primary elections the department is tasked with carrying out as well.
“What happens, and when it happens, will ultimately be up to the judge,” Chmelik said.
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