If you’ve been to any of the recent meetings about election problems in Sandra Merchant’s office, you may have noticed a tall woman with shoulder-length, blond hair domineering discussions, even interrupting Sandra Merchant to “help explain and clarify” the Clerk and Recorder’s responses to questions. At the April 25 test of the vote counting equipment, she was confronted by a person in the audience who asked, “Who are you?” She responded that she is an election judge. . .as though that makes her an expert on Montana election law.
Well, her name is Julie Bass. She is not a lawyer, though she appears to think she is. She has no direct experience administering elections in Montana, though that doesn’t stop her from telling you the rules. Her experience as an election judge does not qualify or differentiate her from the dozens of other election judges in the county. Her only expertise in elections, as far as we can tell, comes from her attendance at and participation in local election denier groups. And now, it seems, she thinks she is running the Clerk and Recorder’s office.
Bass was one of the lead organizers of the election denier group that spent a year harassing Rina Fontana Moore and her staff. Their unhinged behavior included following staff to their vehicles and taking pictures of them. However, when confronted with members of the public peacefully observing Merchant and her volunteers, Bass claims folks are being unkind.
At Merchant’s notoriously pedestrian public presentation, Bass defended Merchant and condemned local citizens demanding accountability. Bass and her ilk now claim the Election Protection Committee is engaging in the same type of intimidation tactics and election denial her group promoted in 2022.
Bass, Merchant, and County Commissioner Rae Grulkowski believed wholeheartedly in the claims that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen. They blindly accepted the Fox News lies about election security. Some of them attended training by election conspiracy ring-leader Mike Lindell.
And now the facts about the election deniers conspiracy theories are in. Fox News took a major hit when Dominion won their defamation lawsuit in court. Fox has since had to admit their election fraud claims were lies. They’re paying for those lies to the tune of $787.5 million. Unfortunately for Great Falls, none of that matters to Bass, Grukowlski, and the far-right Pachyderm Club. They continue promoting wacky conspiracy theories and probably will continue to do so until the day they die. They used these lies to elect Sandra Merchant, whose incompetence is already costing Cascade County.
Whereas Bass’s inane conspiracy theories have been proven to be based purely in fiction, the Election Protection Committee’s claims are supported by truth and fact.
Fact: Superintendent Tom Moore reported receiving two different totals for the May 2, 2023 school board election. The difference between the numbers provided by the Election Administrator and those provided by the County Attorney were 75 votes.
Fact: Voters reported receiving MULTIPLE ballots for the School Board Election. Two precincts with over 400 voters didn’t receive absentee ballots whatsoever. On election day, voters were turned away because Sandra Merchant opened the polls late.
Fact: Merchant’s glaring errors were significant enough to convince a judge to appoint an Election Monitor to protect the integrity of the library levy.
Fact: Voters in both the Fort Shaw Irrigation District and West Great Falls Flood and Drainage Control District have file a lawsuit due to Merchant’s errors. Their attorney described the election as “a complete failure.” Read excerpts from his scathing letter here:
So as Julie Bass continues to hold court at any meeting regarding elections, we wonder, is she also assuming responsibility for these numerous errors? Bass is neither a county employee nor an elected official, though she has certainly inserted herself as a public figure. Why, then, is she being allowed to speak on behalf of Merchant? Why are members of the public having their questions for Merchant intercepted by an election denier with no authorization to speak on behalf of the county? And at what point do Cascade County officials have an obligation to stop the takeover of the Elections office by a fringe group of conspiracy theorists?
Local news has been hard to come by since the Great Falls Tribune suffered a drastic reduction in force. So, we’ll be highlighting state and local journalists who are working hard to cover Montana happenings. Today’s selection is a piece from The Daily Montanan. The same White Christian Nationalism that dominated the 2023 Legislative Session has also shaped Great Falls’ politics for the past two election cycles. Read about this dangerous movement here:
White Christian Nationalism and the 2023 Montana Legislature
This week the Great Falls School Board voted 4-3 to accept the election results for the May 2, 2023 school board election. Typically accepting the canvass- which means accepting the results of the election- is a perfunctory measure. The Election Administrator provides the election results and the total cost of the election, and the School Board simply accepts the results. However, the days when Cascade County’s election results can be relied on are long past.
Before the vote, Superintendent Tom Moore and Brian Patrick provided an overview of the canvass, including highlighting several significant errors. Many of these errors were first brought to light by the Election Protection Committee. Moore discovered further errors during the private meeting in which Sandra Merchant provided the canvass results. Moore noted that voters in Districts 19C and 21B were seemingly not mailed their absentee ballots whatsoever. Merchant seemingly ignored over 400 registered absentee voters in these districts. The District was also provided different voting totals. The Election Administrator first provided results, but the County Attorney’s Office then provided different results, with a difference of 75 votes. Although Patrick asked the County Attorney’s office to explain this difference, the District did not receive a response before Monday night’s School Board meeting.
The District also provided a list of 17 questions to Merchant which were vital to the discussion of the Canvass. Merchant failed to respond to a number of those questions. Moore intimated that after asking the County Attorney’s office about why Merchant had not provided these answers, the County Attorney stated that they could not MAKE Merchant do anything but could only offer advice and recommendations.
Another tremendous concern is the cost of the election itself. Despite requesting a mail election in their original agreement, Merchant refused to honor this request. Rather, Merchant opted for a more complicated and likely more expensive hybrid election, which included a poll election. Poll elections require renting a space and paying additional costs of staffing that election. Merchant originally provided the District an estimated cost of around $41,000. It appears this estimate was based off a previous mail election, which would not accurately reflect the costs of a poll election. The District requested the bill for the May 2, 2023 election, but as of Monday, Merchant had not provided this.
Accepting the results of the canvass also obligates the School District to pay the Election Administrator for the cost of the election- a cost that is still unknown. Trustees asked questions about the obligations of the District should Merchant’s bill exceed the original estimate. Trustee Bill Bronson indicated that he would refuse to pay any excess costs and would be willing to take the matter to court if necessary.
The Trustees were presented with various options as to how to proceed. If the Trustees opted not to accept the canvass, they could pursue a separate legal route which would allow the Board to appoint 3 members for a one-year term, and then put all candidates on the ballot again during the next election cycle. Not accepting the canvas would also mean the Board would not have to agree to the yet-undisclosed total cost.
After lengthy discussion, including public commentary and an examination of legal recourse, a motion was made to accept the results of the canvass. The votes were as follows:
Kim Skornogoski- No
Marlee Sunchild- No
Amie Thompson- No
Bill Bronson- Yes
Gordon Johnson- Yes
Mark Finnicum- Yes
Paige Turoski- Yes
Skornogoski, Sunchild, and Thompson all indicated they were uncomfortable accepting results when they recognized the process was flawed. In his comments, Bronson explained that his understanding of the law influenced his vote. As the results showed a decisive victory for the winners, he believes case precedent would show that the flaws in the election were not enough to overturn the results. Turoski acknowledged the incompetence shown by Merchant in her running of the election, but still opted to accept the results as the two losing candidates did not voice any objections.
Now voters must await Merchant’s final bill. When will it be provided? No one seems quite sure. Merchant, who failed to even attend a recent court hearing regarding her work, did not attend the School Board meeting either. Merchant has refused to speak to the media (save a far-right radio station, which she has graced with her presence). She fails to respond to emails and telephone calls, and apparently even the County Attorney’s office has seemingly given up on getting her to perform her job duties. If Merchant will bill the School District for the excessive costs of the poll election remains to be seen. Regardless, those additional costs will come straight out of our pockets. It is our tax money that pays for all of this, including her $70,000 annual salary. When Merchant chooses to run the least economically feasible type of election, our community suffers the costs- both literal, ethical, and legal.
As E City Beats’ favorite recurring character, it’s not uncommon for my Saturday to be interrupted by a message regarding yet another article starring yours truly. Republican Extremists must be feeling particularly threatened as this week they’ve actually released two.
The goal of both articles is to misplace blame for Clerk and Recorder, Sandra Merchant’s, continued failures. E City Beat would prefer you pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain. Instead, they seek to villainize the people fighting for public transparency and election integrity.
So what is the Election Protection Committee?
The Election Protection Committee (EPC) was formed a few months ago in response to Merchant’s seeming inability to conduct the (then) upcoming School Board Election. Our Committee brought me into contact with several folks I’ve never worked with before. It’s easy to pretend all Democrats are a monolith, but the reality is that Montana Democrats are comprised of a spectrum of beliefs. However, the right to free and fair elections is one of those fundamentals that we can all agree on.
So, for several months the EPC has been monitoring the activity of Sandra Merchant, to assure that Cascade County voters rights are not being violated. This monitoring has uncovered many glaring irregularities in Merchant’s work, any one of which could potentially invalidate the May 2, 2023 elections.
Merchant’s Failures Are Well Documented
Merchant’s numerous irregularities have been thoroughly reported on. You can read an abbreviated list of them in this article: https://theelectricgf.com/2023/05/09/library-requests-election-monitor-commission-debates-public-comment-on-elections/
Now Merchant’s supporters are desperately trying to shift the focus away from her failures. Indeed, they can’t even pretend these mistakes don’t exist. Instead, they’re targeting the Election Protection Committee and its members. I don’t disagree with their characterization of me as a “Democrat activist” and surely it is no surprise that I’d be involved in local activism efforts. Perhaps what they’re truly scared of is that the rest of the committee is wholly moderate. In fact, the EPC’s social media group includes a number of Republicans who stated they voted for Merchant and now don’t think she is competent.
The only deflection and distraction occurring here is coming from the Merchant camp and her friends at E City Beat. They can’t deny Merchant’s numerous mistakes, so instead they are attacking those of us monitoring and reporting those mistakes. The EPC has done a tremendous job these last few months. Without our monitoring, the public likely would not know the depth and breadth of Merchant’s errors. It makes perfect sense that Merchant’s supporters would try to silence us. We’re the ones informing the public, and they don’t want voters to know just how badly Merchant is failing.
These attacks will not deter our work. Sandra Merchant has violated the public trust. She and her supporters are doing everything they can to operate outside of the public view. Despite her campaign promises of transparency, Merchant hides behind Commissioner Rae Grukowlski and a group of “volunteers” who are neither elected officials nor county employees, and who have no business running the elections office.
The Election Protection Committee is committed to ensuring free and fair elections in Cascade County. Sandra Merchant is not up to that task. We will continue to monitor and inform the public of the numerous errors and irregularities Merchant is responsible for. E City Beat can write all the spurious attacks they want. Hating us won’t make Sandra Merchant competent.