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Election deniers are controlling local elections. What could go wrong?

by By JASMINE TAYLOR
| July 7, 2023 7:00 AM

Ever wonder what happens when conspiracy theory runs into reality? Well, look no further than the Cascade County election office. There is no better example of people who are completely divorced from reality getting into positions of power and trying to bend reality to reflect their view of the world. It has been a disaster.

The conspiracy theory is the allegation that the 2020 election was stolen and fraud is rampant in our election system. This conspiracy has been thoroughly debunked in Montana and across the country. But election deniers persist in claiming evil forces are manipulating elections.

In Cascade County, election deniers began appearing in the election office about two years ago, demanding information and even following employees and photographing them. These people joined a network of Montana election deniers led by Republican state Sen. Theresa Manzella from Ravalli County and Republican Rep. Brad Tschida from Missoula. These two have been stirring up trouble across the state bringing “election experts” to meetings with “proof” of their conspiracy theories. One such meeting occurred in Great Falls in May 2022.

Stolen election conspiracy theories have been thoroughly debunked. USA Today reported, “Out of the 62 lawsuits filed challenging the presidential election, 61 have failed.” Dominion Voting Systems filed a lawsuit against Fox News for promoting false allegations about their voting machines. Dominion was awarded $787.5 million by the court. Yet, true believers cling to the newspeak generated by Mike The Pillow Guy’s heavily funded propaganda mills.

In Missoula, Tschida forced local Republicans to conduct an investigation of the 2020 election. His own party found no evidence of fraud. In Lincoln County, the election staff resigned after being accused of fraud by county commissioners and election deniers. In Hamilton several weeks ago, 400 people attended a meeting billed as a “Special Ravalli County Commission Meeting and Public Forum on election integrity.” Ask clerks and recorders in any county in Montana and you will hear stories about the activity of election deniers.

In Cascade County, Republicans won every open position on the ballot. Sixteen-year veteran Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore was defeated by Sandra Merchant by 31 votes. Merchant, a political unknown and an election denier, ran a campaign which provided no information on her qualifications or experience, and was swept into office by the Republican red wave. Merchant took office on Jan. 1 and the chaos began.

Merchant began by hiring cronies from election denier ranks to run the elections office. Employees who had been in the office for years left, frustrated with the lack of communication and understanding of Merchant and the new people in the office. The first election Merchant ran was a local school board election, and it was a mess. The school board accepted the result, but the issue of increased cost thanks to Merchant’s administration remains to be resolved. Next were several ”special district” elections.

Once again the election was full of errors caused by Merchant’s office. These special districts have filed lawsuits against the county. Next up was a levy election for the local library. After seeing how poorly the preceding elections had been organized, proponents of the library levy asked a district court judge to appoint a special monitor to watch the elections office.

After hearing the concerns and the objections from Merchant’s office, the judge appointed a monitor. And throughout all of this, Merchant and her new staff have been defensive, confrontational, and have refused to answer questions from the public and the media.

Most of us don’t think about elections. We vote, the votes are counted, and the winner is announced.

The fact is that administering elections is a complicated business. And that makes it easy for conspiracy theorists to raise questions and create villains.

If we lose free and fair elections, we lose democracy itself. The stakes could not be higher.

Jasmine Taylor is coordinator for the Election Protection Committee in Cascade County. She is a human and civil rights activist and holds a master’s in public administration.