Montana county to vote on removing election oversight duties from elected official

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Commissioners in a Montana county are expected to vote Tuesday on whether to remove election oversight duties from a clerk and recorder who expressed doubts about the integrity of the election process when she ran for office last year.

The Cascade County commission meeting was moved to the fairgrounds in Great Falls to accommodate the anticipated public participation. If the resolution passes, it would take effect immediately.

Commissioner Joe Briggs proposed the resolution, noting that since Sandra Merchant was sworn in early this year, the county has received complaints about the way several local elections have been run. Lawsuits have been filed. The library board asked for court-appointed oversight for their mill levy election this summer.

“It’s been everything from people not getting ballots that should have to people who got ballots that shouldn’t have in these various elections, so there seems to be some systemic problems,” Briggs said Monday.

The issue needs to be settled before next year’s general election, Briggs said.

“We need to get all of the issues identified and fixed before we get in to federal elections, because they do have broad ramifications,” Briggs said.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is seeking reelection in a race that could help determine the majority party in the Senate, two U.S. House races will be on the ballot along with all the major statewide elected races, including governor.

The resolution proposes that that election oversight be removed from the clerk and recorder’s office and be assumed by the county commission, which would appoint an election administrator. State law allows for the change and a handful of Montana’s 56 counties have done so.

During the 2022 campaign for clerk and recorder, some Republicans asked the county commission to ask Democratic clerk Rina Fontana Moore to recuse herself from administrating the election since she was on the ballot, Briggs said. She declined to step down temporarily and Briggs proposed taking election duties away from the clerk and recorder’s office. However none of the other two commission members would second his motion.

Merchant defeated Moore by fewer than 40 votes in November 2022, months after the Republican-controlled state Legislature passed several laws it said were needed to improve election security. However, courts rejected those laws, saying the state brought no proof of the alleged widespread voter fraud the laws sought to eliminate.

Before Merchant took office, Briggs again moved to transfer the election duties to a non-elected administrator and again, nobody else supported him. All three commissioners are Republicans.

Things changed, however, as elections took place this year.

“It went from being basically a structural issue of someone in charge of an election should not be on the ballot to broader questions about how things are being conducted here that didn’t exist previously,” Briggs said.

Merchant said after she took office, experienced employees in the elections department left without teaching her how to do the job.

She argues Briggs’ motion is disenfranchising the people who voted for her to run elections.

“They weren’t electing somebody to take care of the records in the other office, they voted for me because of elections and now their votes are being thrown out,” Merchant said Monday.

Merchant campaigned on election integrity, supported opening up ballot tabulators to make sure they could not be connected to the internet and advocated hand counting of ballots as former President Trump brought baseless allegations that there was widespread fraud that cost him the 2020 election. Merchant has not suggested opening tabulators or going to hand counts since she’s been elected, Briggs said.

In the resolution, Briggs wrote that the county recently spent $200,000 on ballot tabulators and “has received persistent criticism and concerns from certain members of the public who are politically aligned to the currently elected Clerk and Recorder that the county’s … tabulators are Wi-Fi connected, capable of being manipulated by foreign governments or other nefarious actors, and that the only way to remove such fears is for Cascade County to open the tabulators for public inspection.”

However, doing so would void warranties and render the tabulators worthless, he said.

Merchant argues Briggs is playing politics with her job.

“If you’re in the same party you should be supporting each other and working together and that has not happened,” she said.

Briggs said he made the motion to remove partisan politics from elections administration and finds it a little ironic that it was Republicans who sought the change last year when a Democrat was in office and Republicans who oppose the change now.

“From my standpoint, if you tout something because it’s the right way to do to it, then it’s the right way to do it, regardless of whether there’s a Republican or Democrat in office,” Briggs said.

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