Election monitor files first reports with Great Falls Library mill levy election on Tuesday
By Nicole Girten,2023-06-01
Cascade County Courthouse photographed on March 31, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)
The court appointed election monitor for the Great Falls Public Library mill levy election filed four reports with the court since last week detailing ballot mishaps in the Cascade County Election Office.
Voter Peter Russette received six absentee ballots, none of which were for residents at his address and did not include his own ballot, a report filed May 26 read.
The report said Russette changed his address in May 2022 and received his voter registration card that June, bringing it with him into the Election Office that Wednesday. Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant looked up Russette in the voter database and told him he wasn’t a registered voter at that address, blaming the previous administration and staff for this issue, according to the report.
Thursday, the Cascade County District Court reviewed an objection filed by Merchant to the monitor’s reports, more as it related to communications between the library’s counsel and the monitor. The judge ultimately found the emails to be in line with her order.
Merchant’s lawyer, Elizabeth Lund of Bozeman, said in court and to the Daily Montanan that Merchant would be filing a response to the substance of the reports and to expect it in coming weeks, and Merchant did not have additional comment.
However, in court Lund said the reports contained “little ticky tacky stuff or things that could have been done better or in a more convenient manner for a voter, but there aren’t actually issues with whether or not the election is going to be valid or not.”
Attorney Raph Graybill, counsel for the Library Board of Trustees, which requested the monitor, countered later in the hearing that their concerns with the election are serious and continue.
“The gentleman that walks in with six ballots, none of which are his, you know, things like that are a concern,” Graybill said.
Merchant narrowly defeated previous Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore last November and oversaw the May 2 election, which involved voters getting multiple ballots, some voters not receiving their ballot and the delay of the opening of the poll location– which was new as the Great Falls Public School Board of Trustees elections typically had been mail-in ballot only.
The school board narrowly voted to certify the results but was in agreement in acknowledging irregularities in how the election was conducted. Voters in the West Great Falls Flood and Drainage Control District and Fort Shaw Irrigation District, on the other hand, filed a lawsuit requesting their results be voided , citing similar issues to the school board election, and calling for a special election conducted within 85 days.
Following the problems on Election Day, the Great Falls Public Library Board of Trustees requested the court appoint a monitor for the mill levy election, to be held next week. Over the objections of Merchant’s attorney, District Court Judge Brenda Gilbert granted the library board’s request and officially appointed former Elections Office employee Lynn DeRoche as monitor last week.
DeRoche told the Daily Montanan on Thursday that during the first week working as monitor in the Elections Office, the environment was a little “on edge” but that this last week things have eased and staff feels comfortable asking her questions. She said she gives advice based on her experience working in the Elections Office for 16 years under Moore and for more than a month under Merchant.
In her reports, DeRoche detailed inconsistencies like telling a newly registered voter to vote in person on Election Day without giving them their absentee ballot in the Elections Office as they were a late registrant; citing evidence of staff working later in the office than they told DeRoche they would be, meaning she was not there to oversee that activity as permitted in the order; and voters receiving multiple ballots.
In some instances, staff took DeRoche’s advice and resolved the issue, according to the report.
For example, Gregg Rydquist came into the Election Office saying he received two ballots, but his mother-in-law hadn’t received hers.
“Pat told Gregg the system must have issued him two ballots,” DeRoche said in her report filed May 30. “That’s untrue as, the system cannot issue two ballots at the same time.”
She said she suggested staff member Pat Coley give Rydquist an absentee ballot application and have the mother-in-law designate Rydquist as someone who could pick up her ballot in the office. Rydquist did just that and was able to pick his mother-in-law’s ballot. The report did not say what was done with the second ballot sent to Rydquist.
During the hearing Thursday and in a filing submitted Wednesday, Lund objected to attorneys for the library board emailing DeRoche after she filed her first report giving her advice for how to properly file with the court, after DeRoche had sent the report only to counsel and not Judge Gilbert.
The email, included in court filings, provided Judge Gilbert’s email, and it said the report should highlight any action she witnessed that was prohibited by law that she felt the court should address and any action she believed violated the court’s order. It said any questions should be directed to Judge Gilbert with a copy to counsel.
Court filings show attorney Ben Graybill, who is also representing the Library Board, sent a draft of the email intended for DeRoche to Lund to give her the opportunity to give edits or objections. Lund responded in an email that the first report “highlights the problems” with DeRoche’s appointment and that Merchant continues to “strenuously object” to her selection.
“Ms. DeRoche is not reporting on things that could actually invalidate the election for the Court to take action on, but instead is effectively reporting a play by play of her day and things she does not like, for instance purportedly that she was not greeted to her satisfaction” she said. “Your instructions do not reflect that the play-by-play reporting is not appropriate at all.”
Ben Graybill responded to Lund in an email saying Merchant’s continued objection to DeRoche’s appointment is inappropriate and that Merchant should be assisting DeRoche.
“Ms. DeRoche hasn’t done this before; she’s not a lawyer; she no doubt is doing her best to comply with the court’s order,” he said. “Ms. DeRoche’s report contains the matter the court requested her to report about, including your clients’ lack of cordiality.”
He said her report’s format could be improved and that didn’t require action by the court.
In the hearing Thursday, Gilbert said she didn’t view the email as violating the order, as she said her intention in the order was to ensure neither party got the “ear” of the monitor without the other being advised.
She said she didn’t view the email as directing the monitor on what to say substantively in her report. She said the communication from plaintiffs “suggested that she should stick to issues that are concerns about the law not being followed, and the court actually agrees that that’s what I was looking for.
“I recognize that it’s very difficult for a monitor to come into a situation like this, not being an attorney having to report to the court and really knowing how to handle it all,” Gilbert said. “So I think that the monitor’s reports have improved in terms of sticking more to the legal concerns as time has gone on.”
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