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Proposal aims to strip election duties from Cascade County Clerk & Recorder's office

Jim Larson, Rae Grulkowski, Joe Briggs
Sandra Merchant (December 2023)
Joe Briggs (December 2023)
Cascade County Elections website
Posted at 5:46 PM, Dec 07, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-12 16:32:14-05

GREAT FALLS — During Wednesday's Cascade County Commission work session, brewing tensions between members of the commission and Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant came to a head.

Commissioner Joe Briggs said he plans to propose a resolution that would strip election duties from the Clerk and Recorder's office, and appoint a new staff member to handle elections.

Briggs said the main concern he’s heard from constituents is that an elected official should not oversee the election process.

“We had a lot of people coming in with concerns about the election and at every commission meeting, we were getting folks expressing their concerns. And one of the themes that came out of it, certainly not the only theme, but one of the themes was how can you trust an election where the person who's in charge of the election is on the ballot,” Briggs said. “And so I actually tried to accomplish this before that election because it became clear to me that was a very valid question. Why should an elected official who's on the ballot be in charge of the process counting the vote?”

Merchant, who was elected to office in 2022, believes the move is personally and politically motivated.

Sandra Merchant (December 2023)
Sandra Merchant

“Joe Briggs has been talking about it since I won the election, and he's brought it up several times. And I figured it would be before the next election. Because it's political. A lot of it's political,” Merchant said. “I think there's a lot of animosity as well. I have never seen such hatred and vitriol and it's been surprising to see all that. I didn't think local government would be that way, but it is.

Briggs said the timing of this resolution is make sure a change can be made before 2024 elections.

“In the November election coming up next year It is quite possible that Montana is going to decide control of the U.S. Senate,” Briggs said. “And because that is the situation, there will be a level of scrutiny that we have never seen before. So we need to make sure that the elections are running absolutely crisp and professional and efficient.”

Click here to read the full text of the resolution.

Merchant believes this move would disenfranchise the Great Falls voters who elected her to office. She was elected in 2022 after defeating incumbent Rina Moore by 36 votes.

“Their votes are being thrown out. Over 14,000 people voted for me and now they're saying, ‘no, we don't like the person you elected,” Merchant said. “So we're going get rid of them and put in our choice of person that we want in there to run the elections. Because apparently following the law is not making them happy.”

Since Merchant took office, Cascade County elections has faced multiple lawsuits for irregularities and technical errors in the elections she has conducted. Most recently, during last week’s election canvas - Briggs said he was supplied two different sets of numbers from the tabulator machine and the Secretary of State’s Office.

“I cannot reconcile how we had more votes counted than votes that were accept it legally into the system. We cannot have that happen in any election,” Briggs said. “But particularly not in an election that's going to set the tone of who controls the U.S. Senate. So as to the why we need to do it now? In my opinion, we have got to get this fixed now.”

Joe Briggs (December 2023)
Joe Briggs

Merchant says she and her staff follow the law and work to improve their process with each subsequent election. Mistakes can happen. She points to errors in elections conducted by her predecessors and wonders why there’s so much scrutiny on her job.

“We have improved at every election and we're going to continue to improve. Every election is a different situation of different districts and different levies or petitions or whatever. So there's new things to learn at each election and we're getting better,” Merchant said. “We have good support with the Secretary of State's office. I heard (Briggs) on the radio earlier this week talking about how the Secretary of State’s office said something about out canvas and I though how can he say these things that he knows are not true? They're just blatant lies and he just goes out in public and sells them anyway. And people don't know any better.”

The resolution will be brought before the commission during its meeting on Tuesday, December 12, at 9:30 a.m. The meeting has been pre-emptively moved from the commission chambers to the Montana Expo Park to accommodate what is expected to be a large crowd.

Commissioner Briggs and commissioner Jim Larson are expected to vote in favor of the resolution, while commissioner Rae Grulkowski, an ally of Merchant, has indicated she will oppose. All three commissioners are Republicans.

Jim Larson, Rae Grulkowski, Joe Briggs
Jim Larson, Rae Grulkowski, Joe Briggs

If the resolution passes, Briggs said the commission will appoint an interim election official until a permanent one can be hired.

“There are experienced folks around the state that have recently retired that hopefully we would be able to recruit,” Briggs said.

As for Merchant, she would focus on other duties of the Clerk and Recorder and vacate the elections office. She’s not sure what will happen to her staff.

“I hope the staff can stay here as long as they want to,” Merchant said. “But I imagine they’re not going to be very welcome in this office.”

As of Thursday evening (December 7), the following message appears on the Elections page of the Cascade County website:

To all registered voters in Cascade County- your right to vote is in jeopardy! Two of the County Commissioners have stated their intention to nullify the 14,000+ votes that were cast November 8, 2022, for the current Clerk & Recorder/Elections Administrator. They have on the agenda for the Commission meeting on December 12, 2023, a resolution to remove the Elections Administrator duties from the Clerk & Recorder position, overthrowing the election that took place and appointing a person of their choosing-not chosen by the people-to run the elections in the future. See the link below for the resolution and contact the Commissioners to let them know if you want your vote to count!

We will update you as the situation continues.


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Cascade County Elections website