Election canvassing delayed amidst scheduling confusion

Sandra Merchant
Joe Briggs
Posted at 10:55 AM, Nov 21, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-21 12:58:14-05

GREAT FALLS — The Cascade County Court Annex was originally going to canvass the election results on Monday. However, just before the start of the canvassing, it was rescheduled to Wednesday.

On Friday, Cascade County Clerk & Recorder and Elections Administrator Sandra Merchant tried to schedule the canvassing.

According to state law, the canvassing must occur within two weeks of the election. However, Merchant said no one was in the Commissioner’s office to schedule with, so she went through Human Resources.

When Cascade County Commissioner Joe Briggs heard of the scheduling late on Friday, he announced he would not attend, calling it an illegal meeting.

“The main issue today was that there was a canvas was scheduled for today without giving 48 hours public notice,” Briggs said, “48 hours is required before the commission meets, and it does not include weekends or holidays. You don’t count those because the whole goal is to make sure that people are aware of the meeting and can attend.”

Joe Briggs
Joe Briggs

While Merchant knew that two business days was the traditional protocol, she could not find any law behind it.

“All that has been said to me so far is that has been the practice of the commission for years,” Merchant said.

According to 47 Opinion of the Attorney General. No. 13 at 6 (1998), which carries the weight of law, in the case of county commission meetings, the Attorney General has suggested that 48 hours advance notice should generally be considered “sufficient to notify the public of contemplated action.” However, in Jones v. Missoula County, the Montana Supreme Court ruled each case can be considered based on its own unique facts, and depending on the circumstances less than 48 hours notice may be adequate.

Due to the law that says canvassing must occur within 14 days of the election, Merchant decided to forgo the norm in order to keep from breaking state law.

“There is a state statute that says the canvass has to be done within 14 days,” Merchant said, “And so that’s why I scheduled for Monday, to get it done within that time frame. Stick with what the state law is.”

Sandra Merchant
Sandra Merchant

However, Briggs believes that the two days of notice for public meetings is more important than following the state law on the canvassing timeline, especially when the canvassing law is relatively lax.

“There’s no penalty in state law for being late,” Briggs said.

As for how this delay will affect the election, Merchant believes that the results should be unaffected.

“The results are still the results, whether it’s a day late or not,” Merchant said, “That’s kind of basically what the Secretary of State said. The canvass is still the canvass even though it’s a day late.”

Commissioner Briggs believes that trouble and hassle could have been spared by just scheduling it one day later at the start.

“The solution would’ve been on Friday, when they scheduled the meeting, to schedule it for tomorrow, Tuesday,” Briggs said, “That would have both met the 48-hour requirement and met the 14-day requirement of the canvass, but that unfortunately didn’t happen.”

For past election canvassing, the date is scheduled by the staff, but the clerk and recorder requests a date when they are ready. As the day’s confusion begins to resolve, Merchant hopes to avoid mix-ups like this in the future.

“I think working together for the good of the county is much better than having to do last-minute arguments and all this other stuff,” Merchant said.

Canvassing will take place in the Courthouse Annex at 325 Second Avenue North, on Wednesday, November 22 at 3:30 P.M.