Secretary of State attempted to influence elections administrator selection in Cascade County

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Sign for the Cascade County Election Office photographed on March 31, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Montana’s Secretary of State told Cascade County Commissioners not to choose former election administrator Rina Moore or her former staff as their new administrator in a February email.

“Please do not hire Ms. Moore or a member of her administration as Cascade County’s Election Administrator,” Secretary Christi Jacobsen wrote in a letter to commissioners. “Doing so would directly undermine the voters of Cascade County, among other reasons.”

A Secretary of State’s Office spokesperson told the Daily Montanan on Wednesday the Montana Democratic Party was separately trying to influence the commissioner’s decision through a party lawyer. The party chose not to comment, but a lawyer who has separately represented the party and a local election watchdog group said the party was not involved.

Jacobsen sent the email on Feb. 14, as first reported in The Electric, the day before commissioners would convene to make their final decision on who to select for the position following ongoing problems with elections management in 2023. One commissioner said he was “shocked” when he received the email and her input did not sway his decision-making process. Moore said she was frustrated with what she sees as never-ending influence from an election denial group in the county.

Missoula County is also seeing attempts to influence the local election office this week after the county’s Republican Central Committee used a quote affiliated with USSR dictator Joseph Stalin on its website in part to attract election judges to work the upcoming elections, as reported by ABC Montana.

“Those who vote decide nothing. Those who count the vote, do,” the quote read.

The last year-and-change has featured seismic shifts in the Elections Office in Cascade County after Moore lost re-election for Clerk and Recorder by less than 40 votes to businesswoman Sandra Merchant. After nearly a year of elections gone askew in the county, and one open lawsuit on her handling of two May elections, county commissioners voted to pass a resolution to remove election duties from Merchant, and make election administration a non-partisan county job instead of an elected position.

Moore and Lynn DeRoche, who both worked in the Elections Office in the county for 16 years, applied for the job – but ultimately commissioners selected former Realtors Association CEO Terry Thompson for the position.

Commission Chairperson James Larson told the Daily Montanan on Wednesday he was “shocked” when he first saw Jacobsen’s email come through.

“Somebody’s giving us information or their opinion on the state letterhead,” Larson said. “I was dumbfounded really at first.”

Larson said he consulted the County Attorney’s office to check whether what the secretary did was legal. County Attorney Josh Racki confirmed to the Daily Montanan Jacobsen had the right under the first amendment to share her opinion. Both Larson and Racki said they had never seen an instance where a state official shared an opinion during a county hiring process.

Larson said the email didn’t influence his decision at all.

“I never gave it a thought while we were in negotiations,” he said.

Commissioners Joe Briggs and Rae Grulkowski did not respond to voicemails left Wednesday. But Briggs told the Electric he took Jacobsen’s email as a “personal political statement that was done inappropriately.”

Member of the State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Interim Committee Sen. Wendy McKamey, R-Great Falls, told the Daily Montanan she was also surprised to see Jacobsen’s intervention. The committee oversees the Secretary of State’s Office, among other departments.

“That she would do this on official stationery … it makes it extremely official,” she said.

McKamey said she’s sent resources, training courses and certifications to the commission and Thompson for them to review and consider.

Secretary of State spokesperson Richie Melby said in an emailed response to questions Wednesday the Democratic party was trying to influence the commissioners’ decision, saying the party’s “own lawyer and PR machine is working to force Cascade County’s hand in advocating for the previous election administrator, whom the electors of Cascade County voted out.”

Melby did not immediately respond to a follow-up question asking which lawyer he was speaking of and what they did exactly to intervene.

But attorney Mike Meloy, who has represented the Democratic party previously, also penned a letter on behalf of the local elections watchdog group the Election Protection Committee to county commissioners. Meloy said the party was not involved in the letter and he wrote the letter independently, noting he’s also a Cascade County resident.

The letter requested Grulkowski abstain from elections management, citing language in the resolution taking over elections duties requiring commissioners on the ballot recuse themselves.

Grulkowski has publicly stated her intention to run for re-election, though hasn’t officially filed, but voted with the other commissioners for the new administrator.

Moore said she “worked her ass off for 16 years” and is sad about how dogged her opposition is against her, though she said she wanted Thompson to succeed in her new role.

The commission scored Moore second-highest in the interview process, with Thompson beating her by eight points.

DeRoche said she was disappointed to see someone at a statewide level like Jacobsen put out an opinion dismissing their work.

In response to the concern by the secretary that her selection would undermine the voters in the county, Moore said the election was close – she lost by 36 votes – and she’s constantly being asked to come back into the office.

“Of course now it’s, ‘And how could you not have gotten the job?’” she said.

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