The recent decision by the Cascade County Commission to remove election administration from the Clerk and Recorder’s office has generated heated (often false) accusations and covered facts in smoke. To put it simply, the elected Clerk and Recorder was not performing the duties of the job. The Cascade County Commission should be commended for taking action.
In late 2022, a small group of election deniers submitted a petition to the County Commission demanding election “reforms” which included requiring all voters to re-register, eliminating mail- in ballots and banning all forms of electronic voting machines. The reforms requested were based on the disproved conspiracy theory that Trump won the 2020 election.
The November 2022 election was a Republican sweep in Cascade County. Election denier, Sandra Merchant, defeated 16-year incumbent Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore by less than 40 votes. After the election, Moore made numerous offers to work with Merchant to review the election office operations. But, in the end, Merchant agreed to only one brief meeting.
The first elections administered by Merchant were held in May 2023. The School Trustee election was plagued with problems. But School District officials did not pursue legal remedies because it was unclear whether the errors would change the outcome and the expense of running another election was significant. In September, the School District formally asked the County Commission to remove the election duties from Merchant’s office.
In May, there were also elections held for a local flood district and an irrigation district. Merchant’s office also made numerous errors in those elections. As a result, lawsuits were filed against the county. The outcome of these elections remains uncertain. They are currently winding their way through the court system.
An election on a proposed library mill levy was held in June. Numerous problems were found in Merchant’s handling of the library election materials. Early in the process, supporters of the library mill levy went to court requesting the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee the election because of these problems. In addition, materials opposing the levy were handed out by volunteers working in Merchant’s offices. The judge appointed a monitor to oversee the election and required regular reports be sent for her review.
Throughout this time, Merchant was hiring staff and election judges from the ranks of local election deniers, including many who had signed the 2022 petition to the County Commission demanding “reforms.” Two family members of Republican Public Service Commissioner Randy Pinocci (who was recently charged with felony witness tampering) were also given jobs in the Clerk and Recorder/Election office.
Throughout all of 2023, Merchant consistently refused to talk to the press and blamed problems in the elections office on former employees, other county employees, contractors and vendors. Merchant was also criticized for having a private meeting with Douglas Frank, a national figure in the election denier movement who is under investigation by the FBI for an alleged breach of voting machines in Colorado. When asked about the meeting, Merchant was quoted in the Daily Montanan saying it was “interesting hearing what he had to say” and was eager to hear more.
It was the November 2023 Municipal election that finally prompted the County Commission to remove the election duties from the Clerk and Recorder. Merchant again made numerous errors which included failing to provide 48-hour advance public notice of the canvass meeting for the Municipal election. After hours spent re-calculating data from the vote tabulator machine, Commissioners were unable to balance the canvas with the information Merchant provided.
Last month during a seven-hour public hearing where Cascade County Commissioners deliberated on whether to remove the election duties, and ultimately voted to do so. Commissioners Joe Briggs and Jim Larson were vilified by Merchant’s supporters both during this meeting and in the days since. The truth is both of these commissioners set politics aside and focused on ensuring free and fair elections are held in Cascade County. They did the right thing.
Jasmine Taylor is the Coordinator for The Election Protection Committee, a volunteer citizen’s group dedicated to free and fair elections in Cascade County