Flathead County District Court Judge Stewart Stadler ruled Friday that a statewide recount is warranted for the state Superintendent of Public Instruction race, but a state attorney told Stadler his ruling would be appealed to the Supreme Court Monday.
Even though the Republican candidate in the race, Martin City resident Sandy Welch, has to pay for the recount, Friday’s proceedings turned out to be a legal skirmish involving issues beyond vote counting.
Amy Eddy, a Kalispell attorney representing Democratic incumbent Denise Juneau, said Welch’s team is aiming to “disenfranchise voters” by challenging and disqualifying ballots that may be legally tainted.
For example, she said there were 83 voters in Glacier County who voted on photocopied ballots, which are technically not official ballots as defined by law. But Eddy contends that election administrators simply made “reasonable accommodations” to ensure that citizens could vote.
Welch applied for the recount in court, rather than petitioning Democratic Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, alleging there is probable cause for six types of ballot-counting errors that may have falsely affected election results.
Juneau ended up prevailing in the Nov. 6 election with 235,397 votes, while Welch got 233,166 votes, a difference of 2,231 votes or a 0.48 percent margin. State law provides candidates an opportunity to seek a recount if the margin is less than a half of a percentage point.
Eddy and Jorge Quintana, an attorney representing the secretary of state’s office, argued that Welch didn’t provide enough evidence to justify a statewide recount. They noted that Welch provided specific allegations in just six counties, and she noted that the Election Systems & Software Model 650 vote-counting machines that had problems in some counties were used in just 17 counties.
But Welch said problems with the machines raise valid questions about vote results.
In Lewis and Clark County, the machines had software problems, and the error switched a heavily leaning Republican precinct to a win for a Democratic contender by a 25-0 vote margin. Welch contends that no effort has been made to ensure it was a singular error.
In his brief verbal ruling, Stadler said Welch had succeeded in demonstrating probable cause for a recount, partly because the respondents (Juneau and McCulloch) admitted that certain election laws were violated and that there are “sufficient facts” to convince the court that the problems were not limited to the counties cited by Welch.
“The judge recognized we have lots of errors ... and he agreed we need to have a recount statewide,” Welch said after the hearing. “The kinds of errors we are seeing are systemic and widespread and need to be resolved.”
Other errors cited by Welch include the improper correction of ballots. State law requires that “spoiled” or “void” ballots, where the voter makes an error, be replaced by new ballots.
“Many counties corrected the errors with stickers or a felt pen,” a Welch press release states. “Ballots with stickers can be wrongly counted by ballot machines when the stickers fall off the ballot when being run through the machine.”
Eddy pointed out that Flathead County had no problems with the Model 650 machines, indicating that problems with the machines may not be as widespread as Welch suggests.
She added that, in her opinion, Stadler’s ruling creates “terrible precedent” that justifies a person demanding a statewide recount when election problems are detected in just one county.
Anita Woudenberg, one of the four attorneys flanking Welch in court, asked Stadler to consider a flat fee for the recount costs because counties have submitted per-voter recount estimates ranging from 18 to 35 cents. The total estimated cost of the recount is $115,000, and Woudenberg requested that amount be reduced to $51,000.
Eddy objected, saying county election administrators submitted their estimates based on varying circumstances. Stadler agreed, requiring Welch to purchase a bond for $115,000 by 5 p.m. Tuesday.
The Republican Party is involved in financially supporting the recount.
Stewart Segrest, a Montana Department of Justice attorney, told Stadler at the conclusion of the hearing that the state will appeal the ruling, and he requested that Stadler stay his ruling until the Supreme Court has time to consider taking up the appeal.
Stadler rejected the request because state law requires the recount to get under way within five days, which was determined to be Friday, Dec. 14.
“Considering the timelines, Mr. Segrest, this court is not inclined to stay anything,” he said.
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.
Patrick Cote/Daily Inter Lake Representing Denise Juneau, Kalispell attorney Amy Eddy is pictured Friday afternoon in Flathead County District Court. A recount for the state Superintendent of Public Instruction race was ordered by Flathead County District Court Judge Stewart Stadler on Friday afternoon. Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 in Kalispell, Montana.