HELENA – The statewide hand recount in Montana’s race for state superintendent of public instruction might not start until next Monday – and some county election officials say they’re getting anxious to make arrangements.
“Having the day floating around like this definitely does not help,” said Yellowstone County Election Administrator Bret Rutherford. “You just can’t schedule anything. ... We’ve been up in the air, at this point, for two weeks.”
Rutherford said Monday he needs to hire dozens of people to help with the recounting of nearly 70,000 ballots.
Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, the state’s chief election officer, and county officials said they’re awaiting an order from District Judge Stewart Stadler of Kalispell, saying when the recount will start.
The order had not been issued by late Monday.
Stadler on Friday ordered a recount of the votes in the race between Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, a Democrat, and her Republican challenger, Sandy Welch of Martin City.
Juneau defeated Welch by 2,231 votes in the Nov. 6 election, but Welch has alleged possible widespread errors in counting ballots.
Juneau’s winning margin of 0.48 percent of the total vote is less than 0.5 percent, allowing the losing candidate to seek a recount.
Mitch Staley, Welch’s campaign manager, said her attorney asked Stadler to order the recount to begin next Monday – just eight days before Christmas.
“If we’re going to go through this process, let’s do it right,” he said. “We don’t need to rush it.”
Yet Missoula County Clerk and Recorder Vickie Zeier said the recount of 58,000 ballots in her county could take as long as five days, depending on how many people are allowed to recount ballots.
Zeier said the Missoula County attorney has advised her that members of the county election board – which is the three-member county commission – are the only ones who can recount the ballots.
However, Dori Brownlow, a Missoula County deputy attorney, said late Monday that directives from McCulloch’s office could override that advice and allow other people to do the actual counting.
State law says the recount board does the counting, but is somewhat unclear on how the board can use additional people to help with the process.
McCulloch said in the past, counties generally have decided how they want to conduct the recount.
“It could be the county commissioners (doing the counting), it could be that they’re hiring people to come in and do it,” she said.
Welch could have asked McCulloch last week to begin the recount, but instead chose to ask a judge to oversee the process.
Staley said the campaign sought judicial oversight because it is alleging widespread problems with counting, including ballots that might be disqualified, and wants a judge to be able to settle any legal issues.
The alleged problems include double-counted ballots that jammed in vote-counting machines, improper photocopied ballots and “spoiled” ballots that should have been re-voted.
McCulloch said she’s confident the vote counting is accurate, and that a “handful of accusations doesn’t mean that anything improper has been done.”
Alex Corcoran, campaign manager for Juneau, said Monday that Juneau’s campaign is getting ready for the recount, whenever it occurs.
“We feel like as long as the process goes along, Denise will come out the victor,” she said. “I don’t see the outcome of the election changing.”
Zeier said she just wants to get the process started as soon as possible, for it will get harder to line up support staff as the holidays get closer.
“I think everybody just wants to get it over now,” added Rutherford. “I don’t think anyone wants to be counting ballots on Christmas Eve.”
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.