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Cascade County Elections Office overcomes challenges

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Posted at 5:40 PM, Apr 23, 2024

GREAT FALLS — Since Terry Thompson took over the administrative duties of the Cascade County Elections Office, it’s been a learning experience. Since her first day on the job, it’s been full of training and adapting to the new role. Planning for unforeseen adversity is a challenge in any occupation. Inside the Elections Office in the past two weeks – adapting to obstacles out of its control lead to sleepless nights.

It’s evident by political advertisements, campaign signs, and registered voters wearing the infamous, “I Voted” stickers, 2024 is an election year. Montana has a target on its back as being one of the states to watch in the race of U.S. Senate. Unite States Senator Jon Tester is the lone democrat in the state’s Congressional delegation.

Control of the U.S. by a political party could be determined in the outcome of the 2024 election cycle. Before we get to the June primary, Great Falls and Cascade County voters must make it through an all-mail election on May 7 hosted by Great Falls Public Schools

The Cascade County Elections Office is responsible for dispersing the School Board election ballots by mail along with a Centerville School election and the Fort Shaw Irrigation District Election

The Cascade County Print Shop print, the facility designated to print ballots for the elections closed after losing its managing employee – leaving the elections office in a bind.

“We would go to plan B that our ballots would be coming from ES&S in Omaha, Nebraska,” explained Thompson.

ES&S is the company the state of Montana designates to provide electronic tabulators and ballot proofs for its elections. Upon the closure of the Cascade County Print Shop on April 9, one day before it was set to begin printing ballots for the upcoming election, Thompson notified Great Falls Public Schools Director of Business Operations, Brian Patrick of the issue.

“We really appreciate the communication from the Elections Office,” Patrick told MTN on Tuesday.

GFPS was under the impression ballots must be dropped in the mail on April 17 and Thompson notified the school district, Montana code allows a buffer period for all-mail elections up to 15 days prior to election for ballots to be mailed to voters.

In that time, Thompson sought printing locally, before deciding to call its voting software parent company to resolve the problem. The issue is ballots were set to arrive in Great Falls on April 17. 32,000 ballots needed to proof, sealed, and documented and placed in the mail for all registered voters. Many ballots forcing volunteers and Elections Office staff to step up and answer the call.

“I put in 25 hours,” explained Mike Cheer, one of the numerous volunteers in the Elections Office.

Cheer is retired and told MTN he and his wife would have never been able to devote the time to volunteer as they were small business owners by trade. He was back volunteering as a poll watcher on Tuesday in front of the Cascade County Elections after a long weekend doing his civic duty.

“I’ll be here until 1 o’clock in the morning. I don’t care.” Cheer said. “If people came down and volunteered just once to see what really goes on behind the scenes to make an election go forward, they have a way of to have such a great appreciation of the work that goes on down there.”

If you plan to drop off your ballot inside the Courthouse Annex building, Cheer can be found sitting in his chair reading the recognizable green book of Montana Election Law. He says, if he is doing this job, he might as well stay informed as a poll worker on what they’re required to do.

On the opposite side of the ballot drop box you’ll find another volunteer named Jack Fratal. A Vietnam veteran who’s sat front and center at the last two years of elections at the Montana Expo Park. Fratal says, as a veteran, he wants to set an example for other like him that their service wasn’t over when they left the battlefield. There are still ways to support your country and community.

In the last year and throughout two presidential administrations, elections at the local and national level have been scrutinized. Cascade County was caught in the crossfire after former Elections Administrator and Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant was removed from her role as Elections Administrator. Fratal and Cheer were full of high praise for what the jobs the elections office staff complete each day.

“Terry and her cohorts in the back office do a fantastic job back there.” Fratal said. “Anybody who thinks they can do a better job they should come back and try.”

Fratal and Cheer aren’t the only ones to credit for getting 32,000 ballots in the mail ahead of a Monday deadline per Montana Election Law. A team of volunteers work around the clock to ensure ballots were in the mail Monday morning. Thompson told MTN they wrapped up the stuffing of envelopes around 2:30 on Sunday.

With the challenges faced in the Elections Office, Great Falls Public Schools is grateful for the dedication of the staff and volunteers completing the job on time.

“As a school district we appreciate that because they’re working and volunteering for our election which is important to us. Brian Patrick, Director of Business Operations for GFPS told MTN.

The Great Falls Public School District is responsible for fronting the bill for the outsourcing of printing the ballots. Patrick told MTN the school district has operated mail elections since 2008. He says they found it’s more effective to get ballots in voter's hands. It is ultimately a decision the School District feels is most effective for their own elections.

“It’s a united team of people who are dedicated to this process. Across the country we want to run these elections properly,” added Thompson.

Despite meeting the Monday deadline for ballots to be dropped in the mail, voters should begin received their ballots anytime. Drop boxes for returning ballots in person before election day are available inside the Elections Office and at the front entrance to the Cascade County Courthouse Annex building. If you drop a ballot off before the election or mail it back in with the provided envelope, do so early. A signature is required or those ballots on the outside of the envelope and if there is any discrepancy with the ballot a voter wishes to return, turning it in early can allow for elections staff to contact the voter to fix the discrepancy.

On May 7 ballot drop boxes will be available for drop off at the Montana Expo Park where ballot counting will take place. Thompson told MTN, voters can vote in person as help will be available to obtain a ballot the day of. She reiterated the Expo Park site is not a polling place and ballots are strictly absentee and/or should predominately be returned by mail or dropped in person.

MTN has received a few questions on ballots with incorrect addresses and some that arrived unsealed. It is advised to visit the Elections Office to address the concern, or you can call the office at 406-454-6803. MTN has not received public outcry in how ballots arrive like it has from elections in the last two years. The questions came from one couple in Great Falls who experienced this issue. MTN advised the voters to contact the Elections Office to resolve the questions with their ballots.

Questions or comments about this article? Click here to email Ryan Gamboa.