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Tipping the balance in Lake County



The balance of power in Montana’s next Legislature could be determined by a Lake County election error. That’s because Polson resident Merrie Lewis says she and her partner, Craig Padilla, would have voted for Democratic House District 12 candidate Jeanne Windham over Constitution Party candidate Rick Jore had they been given the proper ballots. Instead, after much confusion, poll workers gave Lewis and Padilla ballots for House District 15.

“Had I been more into the political world, I would’ve said, ‘Hell no, I’m voting where I live,’” says Lewis, a recruiter at Salish-Kootenai College.

Lewis says she attached an absentee ballot with a vote for Windham to her inappropriate provisional ballot on election day, but that Lake County counted the provisional ballot. Lake County election supervisor Kathy Newgard confirms Lewis’ account.

Such mishaps happen occasionally during elections but usually don’t take on the significance they carry in this case. In this case, the current vote count shows Jore with a two-vote lead over Windham. Had Lewis and her partner been given the proper ballots, the race would now be tied. What’s more, the race is of statewide significance, since the current lineup in the Montana house—not counting the Windham-Jore outcome—is 50 Republicans and 49 Democrats. If Jore wins, Republicans, who have just lost both the senate and the governor’s office, retain control of the house. If Windham wins, the house would be tied and Governor-elect Brian Schweitzer would appoint house leaders—presumptively giving Democrats across-the-board control of state government.

“Technically, it was our office error that they got the wrong ballots,” says Newgard. “With redistricting…you move people into new house districts. There are addresses that we just flat-out missed, and that’s what happened here. We had them in precinct 19 but they should’ve been in 18.”

Newgard says she knows of “four or five” Lake County voters who were given the wrong ballots for their address, but she says that, according to state election law, nothing can be done about it.

“There’s nothing in the law that provides for [correcting a mistake],” Newgard says, a stipulation that Lewis contends is “crazy.”

A recount of the House District 12 race, requested by Windham, is expected the week of Nov. 22.


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