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Judge orders redo election for two Kalispell city council wards

Election Lawsuit
Posted at 9:07 AM, Feb 26, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-26 11:07:30-05

Election officials in Flathead County have been directed by a district court judge to redo two Kalispell city council elections conducted last fall in order to remedy a clerical error that resulted in some voters getting ballots for the incorrect council ward.

The court order, issued Feb. 16 by Flathead County District Court Judge Robert Allison and first reported by the Flathead Beacon, partially granted a request by county election administrator Debbie Pierson to nullify the results of four city council races and conduct a new election. Pierson submitted the petition in November, explaining that county elections staff had failed to input new city council boundaries approved in 2021 into the state’s election system. The error resulted in at least 176 voters receiving and casting ballots for the wrong wards.

Allison agreed to nullify the results of the 2023 election in Kalispell’s first and second wards, noting that the margins between candidates in each of the races were close enough to be impacted by the ballot error. However, the judge declined to order redos for elections in wards 3 and 4. Ward 3 incumbent Ryan Hunter, who was reelected last fall, had argued to the court that his margin of victory was well above the number of voters impacted in that election. Additionally, in the case of Ward 4, incumbent Sid Daoud ran unopposed. Pierson did not dispute either argument and Allison upheld the results of both races.

City Manager Doug Russell told the Montana Free Press Thursday that council members Kari Gabriel and Sam Nunnally — the winners of last fall’s Ward 1 and Ward 2 races, respectively — recused themselves from action items before the council this week in light of the court order. Russell characterized the situation as “fairly novel” and said the city is now looking for clarification from the court on whether the two are able to serve until a new election is held or whether the judge’s decision renders their seats vacant.

“Hopefully we have information sooner rather than later,” he said, noting that the council has no more action items scheduled for another week and a half. Russell added the city is not considering revisiting any actions taken by the council prior to Allison’s order because the results of the 2023 election had been previously certified by the county.

Flathead County spokesperson Kim Grieser similarly informed MTFP via email that the county is still working to confirm information about next steps. Pierson and county election manager Adrienne Chmelik were not immediately available for comment regarding when the new election might be held or how much it will cost, but the Flathead Beacon reported that it will take a minimum of 85 days to readminister the affected elections.

According to the Flathead County Election Department’s website, the office is already slated to conduct several elections over the next few months including a March 19 Kalispell levy election, local school and special district elections on May 7 and the June 4 primary for state and federal candidates hoping to advance to this November’s general election.

The Kalispell City Council includes eight councilors, two from each ward elected to staggered four-year terms. It also includes a mayor elected on an at-large basis. The mayoral seat and other four city councilors weren’t up for election last year.