Grueling recount changes nothing in Ward 6 race for Missoula City Council

Members of the recount board, including Clerk of Court Shirley Faust and Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick, go through ballots one by one on Thursday. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The Missoula County Elections Office unsealed three boxes of ballots from Ward 6 on Thursday to begin a recount in a race where just 12 votes separated the two candidates.

Nearly five hours later, after each ballot was counted and confirmed in a grueling vote-by-vote process, nothing changed. Conservative Sandra Vasecka maintained her lead over progressive Nick Shontz, ending a saga nearly two weeks old to claim the seat on the Missoula City Council.

“It’s really interesting seeing how every vote counts, especially in these local elections,” said Vasecka. “It’s nice to see the double checking process and see how it works.”

Shontz, a local business founder, filed his official request for a recount on Tuesday, just before the deadline to do so. Trailing by just .049%, the right was his to request the recount under state law, and he posted a $2,000 bond to fund it.

With the bond in place, elections administrator Dayna Causby convened a recount board comprised of Missoula County commissioners Dave Strohmaier and Josh Slotnick, and Clerk of Court Shirley Faust.

“We’re privileged to live in a democracy where we have this option,” said Faust.

Missoula County Elections Administrator Dayna Causby oversees Thursday’s recount, along with nearly a dozen other observers. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The recount began after Causby informed the room of Montana laws guiding the actions to come. Officials then began by counting each individual ballot, ensuring all ballots recorded by the elections office were accounted for.

They then began reading each individual ballot until all 2,500 ballots had been covered. The results failed to change the outcome of the race.

“It’s astonishing how accurate this stuff is,” said Todd Mowbray, vice chair of the Missoula County Democrats. “The Missoula County Elections Office is remarkable for how open and inclusive they are. The mechanics of our democratic process is basically flawless.”

The afternoon began with a sense of tension, as party representatives filled the room. Republicans anchored one side while Democrats – well outnumbered in the room – took the other. The candidates maintained separation as well.

But as the afternoon wore on, all sides began to mix, and the candidates exchanged niceties from time to time as they observed the recount process.

“It’s really neat to see all the ballots right in front of you being counted by real people,” said Shontz. “It reminds you of all the people who sat at their table and cast their ballots. I’m thankful to have the opportunity to participate.”

Ballots sat 200 deep in stacks of 25 across the table, representing each vote cast in Ward 6. Vondene Kopetski, leader of the Missoula County Republicans, observed the recount, as did Anita Milanovich, an attorney with the Montana Republican Party.

“My expertise and background is in election law,” she said. “As an attorney, I have participated in overseeing contest recounts. My interest here is making sure the integrity of the vote is protected, and that the voters’ intent is preserved.”

Ward 6 City Council candidates Sandra Vasecka, right, and Nick Shontz, left, watch as the election board goes over each individual ballot to check and recheck the name. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

More than a dozen people filled the room, and half of them watched the recount board turn ballots while calling out the chosen candidate.

City Council member Jesse Ramos, whose efforts helped local Republicans pick up two additional seats on the council in the election, rallied fellow conservatives to Thursday’s recount.

They had come to “ensure the integrity of the vote,” he said.

“I just wanted to make sure they’re fair,” he said. “Although it was only 12 votes, that’s a pretty wide margin. It’s a wide margin to ask for a recount, but count them again. It would take a statistical miracle to overturn them.”