The big lie goes on tour in Minnesota

By: - March 7, 2022 6:00 am

Seth Keshel speaks to a crowd of hundreds at an event in Brainerd called “Searching for Truth” on Dec. 9, 2021. Photo courtesy of Tim Speier/Brainerd Dispatch.

A former small-town Minnesota mayor and a retired Army captain from Texas have been traveling the state claiming the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump and other Republicans, including GOP U.S. Senate candidate Jason Lewis.

Trump supporters and members of the “America First” movement, armed with the sophisticated-seeming but ultimately debunked statistical analysis, have bombarded local and state election officials with questions, demands for “audits” and even threats about unfounded election conspiracy claims. The secretary of state’s office gets a steady stream of messages on email and social media saying things like “You’re going to jail tomorrow,” or “U.S. marshals are knocking.”

The cowboy and the self-described nerd drew hundreds of people to what they call “Behind the Election Corruption Curtain” events in Brainerd in December, and Monticello last month.

Wearing a button-down shirt with a black leather vest, jeans and cowboy boots, Seth Keshel of Fort Worth is the headliner, bringing military pedigree, Texas twang and swagger to the show. 

“I think y’all need to stir up a lot of crap in the state,” Keshel told the crowd in Monticello. “Y’all are complacent.”

After the election, Keshel and other current and former military men partnered with ex-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and lawyer Sidney Powell to claim the election was stolen.

The former Army captain admits he went from being a nobody before the 2020 election to being praised by Trump after he claimed in August there were more than 8 million “excess votes” for President Joe Biden. He claimed Trump won Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona, Georgia and Minnesota. The right-wing media machine kicked into gear and amplified his claims.

The alleged logic: There’s no way the election could have turned out the way it did, based on his analysis of the percentage of voters who are registered in each party — though Minnesota doesn’t have partisan registration — compared to the actual votes for each party and population growth over the past two decades.

The problem: His “predictive modeling” makes no account for how voters’ behavior may change from one election cycle to the next. A Harvard University political scientist who reviewed Keshel’s claims found no evidence of fraud. 

Secretary of State Steve Simon said Keshel is comparing 2016 to 2020 and saying things changed.

“That’s not evidence of anything bad or wrong — that’s evidence of democracy in action,” Simon said. “Voters and people change their mind and there’s nothing suspect about that.”

Although Hillary Clinton beat Trump narrowly in Minnesota in 2016, Biden’s margin of victory in Minnesota in 2020 was similar to President Barack Obama’s in 2012 — 7 percentage points, more than 200,000 votes. Biden was on the Obama ticket. 

Not surprisingly, no one claimed fraud in 2012. Or, for that matter, in any of the other dozen consecutive Democratic victories in presidential elections here. Or the Democrats’ records of statewide election victories going back to 2006. 

The explanation would seem to be uncomplicated: All evidence points to there being more Democratic-leaning voters in Minnesota than Republicans. 

Keshel — who could not be reached by the Reformer — told the Associated Press he didn’t have time to go over his analysis, but suggested “full forensic audits” would help sort it all out. Minnesota already hand counts ballots from at least 3% of precincts in each county after every election. About 400,000 votes were hand counted after the 2020 election, overseen by observers from both parties. The outcome was nearly identical. 

Keshel also declined to give USA Today any evidence to support his claims, saying, “If I sent everyone information, I’d get nothing done.”  

Regardless, he released his  Aug. 2 “analysis” on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app.  It was picked up by the Gateway Pundit, ​​a right wing website that publishes false voter fraud claims. Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon promoted Keshel’s claims, and then Trump plugged it in a statement on Aug. 3. Trump called Keshel’s numbers “overwhelming, election-changing” and proof he won.

Max Hailperin, a retired computer scientist who does consulting work on election systems, said Keshel is little more than a “showman” playing to audiences that “want to believe.”

“He seems (to be) somebody who’s an absolutely lousy weather forecaster who’s managed to trade that in for being a really great debunker of fraudulent thermometers,” Hailperin said.

Prior to going full time as a paid consultant, Keshel was mostly in sales and was a “baseball consultant” for a couple years, according to his LinkedIn page. Although Gateway Pundit called him an “elections expert,” he doesn’t list any experience in elections on his LinkedIn bio. 

Keshel’s claims have inspired people to press officials for audits and unleashed a wave of emails to election officials in many states, according to Reuters

He encouraged the Monticello crowd to use their talents in any way possible — whether by defeating a school board member, donating money or making art.

“I’m a statistics guy, but… I’m not a numbers nerd,” he told the Monticello crowd. “I like to take complex things (and) boil down to make them simple.”

Keshel made a presentation at MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s August conference in South Dakota, where the goal was to prove the election was stolen.

“I’m not a cyber focus guy,” Keshel said at the conference, where Lindell and fellow travelers’ credibility took yet another hit when Lindell’s own hired expert turned his back on a key element of the China-hacked-the-election claim.

“My stuff is all sources,” Keshel told the Monticello crowd. “You can boil it down to basically like ‘How the hell did this guy get so many votes?’ And then other people can figure it out.”

Small town mayor becomes an elections expert

He leaves the “figuring out” to people like Rick Weible, who took the Monticello stage after Keshel, quickly noting that he wears glasses.

“Yeah, I’m that guy,” he said. “I’m a geek. I’m a nerd.”

The former mayor of St. Bonifacius, Minn., Weible has been posting YouTube videos for about a year — he calls it Midwest SwampWatch — laying out election fraud claims in Minnesota.

Weible claims 39% of ballots cast in Minnesota in 2020 can’t be “connected” to registered voters — including 700,000 absentee ballots. In Dakota County, for example, 666 ballots aren’t “connected” to voters, he said.

He’s trying to track the total number of voters with a list of registered voters and their voting histories — which campaigns and political groups use to target voters. 

Hailperin said Weible is simply unaware of how the voter file works. 

The list of registered voters doesn’t include people who ask to be omitted, or people who have died or moved since the election. It’s not possible for private citizens to match ballots with voters, Hailperin said, especially when counties have six weeks after the election to update the voter histories, and they can get extensions.

Hailperin allowed that it’s reasonable for Weible to ask why some counties were so slow to post voter histories, perhaps because they didn’t have the staff or resources. He added, however, that the voter history file has never been a complete list, nor does it instantly come into existence the day the election is over.

Weible disagreed, saying the two databases should match up.

Hailpersin also said he reached out to Weible and has spoken to him at length, telling him he misunderstands the system. Weible is still doing presentations on what Hailperin calls the “dog and pony show circuit.”

“Weible knows a fair bit, but he also is missing lots of pieces and he is more than happy to blow through what might be stop signs,” Hailperin said. “I think the real thing is just that he’s a very committed believer that our government ought to be in different hands.”

Pushing elected officials, including sheriffs, for action

Weible said he’s done more than 20 such presentations since January 2021. He said they’ve gone from being “data-driven” to “action-oriented,” because the Republican Party’s official apparatus won’t take action.

An estimated 400 people attended the Brainerd event, and surely contributed to a groundswell of conservatives who urged Crow Wing County officials for months to look into unspecified fraud. The county board voted Jan. 4 to call for a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 election — even though Trump won the county by 30 points. 

The secretary of state denied their request. As required by law, county administrators conducted post-election reviews and found no significant irregularities.

They’re targeting other counties, too. Weible said they’re bringing their fraud claims to sheriffs in Wright, Sherburne, Anoka, Dakota and Crow Wing counties. Keshel lists Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Saint Louis and Wright counties among the “top 100 worst counties” for “abnormal trends” in the 2020 election.

Keshel offers as proof his opinion that if Biden got 81 million votes, Democrats should have killed it in the U.S. House — but didn’t. Which ignores the fact that Democratic voters tend to be packed into a smaller number of dense, urban congressional districts, where anti-Trump fervor led to huge margins for Biden, while Democratic congressional candidates struggled outside major metro areas. 

Among Keshel’s other proof: That Trump spent “tons of time” in Minnesota, but didn’t win. Which ignores the strong possibility — backed by every public poll — that Trump simply wasn’t well liked by a majority of Minnesotans. 

Regardless, elected officials and candidates have gotten on board, too. Lewis attended the Brainerd event, and has tweeted similar sentiments.

In October, Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, repeated some of Weibel’s claims in a YouTube video, according to the Hutchinson Leader.

And a Republican candidate for secretary of state, Kim Crockett, handed out literature at the Brainerd event, and called Weible a “voter data hero” on Facebook.

Simon, who is running for reelection, called Crockett’s behavior “bizarre.” 

“It doesn’t inspire confidence that she’s associating herself with fringe conspiracy groups,” Simon said.

Simon said this “cloud of disinformation” is a huge problem, and people are spreading it for political and financial reasons.

“It’s wishful thinking and made-up fantasies,” Simon said. “And it’s very easy to grasp at all the reasons why you lost an election other than the fact that more people voted for the entity that you didn’t like.”

Weible makes other claims, at one point showing a photo of what he said were people with bags of ballots in Dakota County for a post-election review, suggesting they weren’t properly secured.

Simon said the ballots are kept “under lock and key” but they do have to be transported from one place to another. Hailperin said the photo may look bad, it was already offered as evidence in one of many election fraud claims filed by attorney Susan Shogren Smith. The suit went nowhere, and Shogren Smith was socked with a $10,000 sanction in March after a judge said she bamboozled voters into signing on as plaintiffs without their knowledge in a lawsuit contesting election results.

Asked about his background in elections, Weible cited his 10 years as mayor, during which he sat on ballot boards and canvassing boards and helped candidates review, challenge and defend elections. He said he also does forensic data analysis for companies. His business helps small businesses and nonprofits with everything from Quickbooks to advertising, designing software and collecting money.

He said he became a “tax refugee” four years ago and moved across the border to Brookings, S.D. Although the Monticello presentation was sponsored by a “generous donor” and a hat was passed for money, Weible said in the end the presentations cost him money. He said donations are used for web hosting fees, software licensing and voter list fees.

He wants to see Minnesota ban the use of vote drop boxes and mail-in ballots and the practice of “vouching” for other voters. He favors limiting absentee voting to 14 days. He said if he can get the Legislature and secretary of state to take action, “My job is done.” 

Which signals what might be the ultimate goal: Not overturning the 2020 election, or even persuading a majority of people it was fixed, but pushing Republicans to enact tighter regulations on voting. 

And, it’s no coincidence, Democrats say, that these regulations would likely suppress Democratic turnout. 

Simon said it’s unfortunate that “good people” are buying into their “bizarre myths.”

“It’s really dangerous and foreign adversaries are absolutely fanning the flames and cheering them on,” he said.

Hailperin said “a distressing number of people” are being drawn to the events held by the likes of Weible and Keshel.

“If you look nationally… it’s become something of a movement.”

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.

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