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Cascade County election presentation scheduled for Friday, location moved to Family Living Center

By Nicole Girten,


"I voted" stickers. (GPA photo archive via Flickr, CC-BY- SA 2.0)

Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant will be giving a presentation on how the upcoming elections will be run this upcoming Friday at a facility near the Montana ExpoPark.

The meeting was initially scheduled last week but was canceled as Merchant had contracted COVID-19. The meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. with options to attend both in person and on Zoom.

At a county commission meeting on Tuesday, several residents expressed concern about the handling of elections after Merchant emailed two school districts and the Great Falls Public Library director earlier this month that she would be unable to use mail ballots as originally planned.

The purpose of the presentation on Friday is to provide clarity to the community on how the county is proceeding with elections. Cascade County has five upcoming local elections.

Merchant narrowly won the Clerk and Recorder race against 16-year incumbent Rina Moore last fall, with less than 40 votes separating them. Several sources told the Daily Montanan Merchant was active in an election integrity group before assuming office.

Originally the meeting was going to be held in the Cascade County Commissioners Office, but according to the county website, the location was moved to the Family Living Center near the Montana ExpoPark, which can seat more people.

Former County Commissioner Jane Weber said she contacted James Larson who is currently on the commission to advocate for switching the venue.

Cascade County Commission Chair Rae Grulkowski, who like Merchant assumed office in January, said absentee ballots would be mailed out, but mail-in ballots could be done differently, during a Commission meeting on Tuesday.

“If you’re an absentee voter, you will get your mail by ballot. That’s something federal that will never change by our jurisdiction,” she said. “And the mail-in component is what I understand was being revised, and that is the discretion of the elections administrator.”

Merchant did not attend the meeting Tuesday, which was open to the public in person and via video.

The Montana Secretary of State’s website says voters have until 25 days before an election to register to vote absentee, which for the upcoming school district elections held on May 2, would be April 14.

More than 80% of Cascade County voters cast ballots by mail.

As first reported by the Electric, Director of Business Services and Operations for Great Falls Public Schools Brian Patrick asked Merchant in an email Monday if there was updated information about the election before the School Board meeting that night. Merchant responded saying her office is continuing preparations.

“Will you be designating the Expo Park or any other polling places for the May 2nd School District elections?” Merchant asked Patrick in the email.

The entity conducting the election, in this case the County Elections Office, is typically responsible for coordinating polling locations.

Former Cascade County Commissioners Don Ryan and Weber were among about a dozen residents who spoke during public comment at the meeting to express concerns about how upcoming elections were being handled.

Ryan, who previously worked as the county’s clerk and recorder, spoke to how much he was able to rely on expertise of existing staff when he assumed office, and with the departure of Moore, there was a vacuum of expertise.

The Office of the Clerk and Recorder oversees more than elections; it also handles birth and death certificates, burn permits and property surveying, among other duties.

Ryan lost re-election as county commissioner last fall to Grulkowski. He said before the election, the commission had considered removing the elections elements from the Clerk and Recorder’s Office. Ryan said he agreed with the idea, since it would avoid the sticky situation the county is in now, but because it was so close to the election it would look politically motivated.

Ryan encouraged concerned citizens to volunteer to help get the upcoming elections done.

“Commissioners, I would implore that you do everything possible to give that department the resources they need to get these immediate elections done, and then go ahead and make the move to take that away,” he said, citing his experience as both a clerk and a commissioner.

“I think we see the results of having basically an experience-vacant Recorder’s Office at this point in time,” Ryan said.

Weber said the County may be slowly stripping the office of duties like auditing and printing, and she said if this plan goes through, it could be at great financial cost to the county due to new departments needing more staff.

Commissioner Joe Briggs did not return a phone call from the Daily Montanan after the meeting to confirm the shifting duties of the office.

Weber brought up another current controversy within the Elections Office.

Weber said an employee in the Elections Office, Devereaux Biddick, referred to Merchant’s COVID-19 diagnosis as testing positive for the “China Virus.”

The email, obtained by the Daily Montanan, was sent to Patrick while Merchant was out sick after he inquired about the now rescheduled presentation.

Several public commenters condemned the rhetoric from the office as racist. The Daily Montanan left a message with the Elections Office but did not hear back from Biddick in time for publication.

Weber said this incident further deteriorates the credibility of the Elections Office.

“This type of racist language should not and cannot be tolerated,” she said.

Hate crimes against Asian Americans in the U.S. spiked during the pandemic.

Resident Carol Robinson said people should give Merchant a chance, saying Merchant also had to learn on the job.

“Let her get her feet in there. It’s an overwhelming job, I’m sure,” she said.

Jacob Bachmeier, a Democrat who served two terms as a state representative and lost while running for state senate last cycle, said, “and thanks to the great work of our previous clerk and recorder, I can confidently say that I got my butt whooped.”

Bachmeier lost to Sen. Wendy McKamey, R-Great Falls, by 12 percentage points.

Bachmeier said it didn’t seem right to him that Merchant kept her whole salary, what he said was $70,000, with less responsibilities.

“We need to continue to hold her accountable to make sure that she does her job appropriately. And that if I run again, and I lose, I can be confident that I got my butt whopped again,” he said to chuckles in the room.

The post Cascade County election presentation scheduled for Friday, location moved to Family Living Center appeared first on Daily Montanan .

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