The Republican push to get more eyes on the polls this November

Stoking fear that the 2020 election was stolen, the GOP is trying to recruit more poll workers

By: - April 13, 2022 6:00 am

Former Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer tells a Buffalo audience how to become an election judge, as part of a GOP push. Photo by Deena Winter

Republicans are engaged in a furious effort to recruit election judges, guided in part by the false impression that the 2020 election was stolen, and that an army of GOP eyes will secure victory next time. 

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, recently hosted an event in Buffalo that was advertised with a photo of Uncle Sam urging people to get involved, saying “Did you know that in the 2020 election there were 20,000 Democrat election judges in MN and only 3,000 Republican judges? Do your part to restore democracy.”

It’s possible, and likely, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party recruited more poll workers than their Republican counterparts, but the Secretary of State’s Office couldn’t confirm the numbers. 

Kiffmeyer told the Buffalo audience of about a dozen that Secretary of State Steve Simon has been removing GOP election judges on technicalities. Peter Bartz-Gallagher, a spokesman for Simon, said state election workers — not Simon —  check the lists and match names with precincts, but that’s it.

Kiffmeyer urged people to work the polls in counties other than the one they live in.

“Don’t take for granted any location,” she said.

A man in the audience credited another attendee for signing up to be an election judge in Hennepin County. “He’s a very brave man,” he said, an apparent reference to DFL dominance of the state’s largest county. 

Kiffmeyer, a former two-term secretary of state, has also introduced legislation (SF 3469) that would require that ballot boards be recorded and livestreamed on Election Day. She’s working with city and county officials eager to dispel distrust in the electorate.

In a recent campaign email, GOP gubernatorial candidate Paul Gazelka urged people to sign up to be election judges, saying he’s “disheartened by the lack of trust in our voting system.” 

The subject line of the same Gazelka e-mail was more incendiary: “Democrats will do anything to rig this election.”

Republican Secretary of State candidate Kim Crockett is pushing what she calls an “Eyes on Every Ballot” initiative and is recruiting election judges “with the help of patriot groups.”

She has accused Simon of rigging the system. She’s been critical of Simon’s decision in 2020 to agree to a settlement with voting rights groups that sued the state to expand mail balloting due to the pandemic. Crockett crowed that if more Republicans are watching elections, more Republicans will win this year. Crockett attributes Republicans’ recent success in Virginia to getting more Republicans into precincts, and says she has a “Virginia plan for Minnesota.”

“Republicans have been asleep at the wheel for years,” she said at a recent event.

Claims that Republicans were cheated out of electoral victory in Minnesota in 2020 don’t stand up to scrutiny

President Joe Biden’s Minnesota victory was comparable to a bevy of statewide DFL victories going back to 2006. Moreover, except for the top of the ticket, Republicans had a good election: They retained control of the state Senate, won state House seats and flipped a congressional seat that had been in DFL hands for three decades. 

Election administrators say much of the GOP hullabaloo around election judges is misplaced. 

Election judges are the people you see when you go to vote — they greet voters, accept ballots and help voters who have questions at the polls on Election Day. Although the major parties submit lists of names to the secretary of state’s office, most election judges are recruited by local election officials.

“It’s just your friends and neighbors,” Bartz-Gallagher said.

Local election authorities — city  and county employees — then train election judges and oversee them. 

“We’re a check to each other, and so we’re kind of making sure the Democrats don’t cheat, and the Democrats are trying to make sure we don’t cheat,” said Kiffmeyer, who said she was an election judge for 11 years.

Local election officials must make sure there is party balance among the poll workers, which can be challenging in some heavily Republican or Democratic areas. 

Max Hailperin, a retired computer scientist who consults on election systems, said Crockett and other Republicans seem to think eyes on every ballot — as opposed to persuading more voters to support their candidates — will flip Minnesota red by foiling a nefarious plot, what he called “the deep magic.”

This isn’t the way to instill confidence in the election system, he said. Hailperin’s fear: Republicans win due to typical mid-term dynamics, but their victory will bolster fears among the GOP rank-and-file that the 2020 election was stolen and that victory this year is due to more Republican eyes watching.

It’s not a new thing for Minnesota Republicans to wring their hands about getting more election judges, Hailperin said. The push may be more successful this year because it taps into the energy of 2020 stolen election fears, which Democrats refer to as “The Big Lie.” 

Brian Evans, spokesman for the Minnesota DFL Party, said the GOP is outsourcing recruitment of election judges to the fringe of the party. A former military man from Texas and a former Minnesota mayor, for instance, have been drawing hundreds of Minnesotans to their presentations. 

Seth Keshel of Fort Worth and former St. Bonifacius Mayor Rick Weible encourage people to sign up to be election judges during their hours-long presentations stoking fears that the 2020 election was stolen. 

Other recruiters include Keith Haskell, who was convicted of pretending to be a police officer and pepper spraying a teenager he caught shoplifting in 2017. He says he’s an investigator for something called the National Action Task Force, which claims to defend the U.S. Constitution.

Hailperin worries that if a bunch of conspiracy-minded people sign up to be election judges, they could easily get unduly excited about perfectly normal discrepancies. That could lead to what he called “disruptive vigilantism” or the spread of misinformation afterward.

For example, they may insist on being inches away from everything going on, or they may have an incorrect understanding of the law and try to improperly intervene, Hailperin said.

“This all demeans the service of actual election judges from all parties,” Hailperin recently tweeted of Crockett’s claims. “They have been working together to make democracy happen — some for years, some newly so. They aren’t there to cheat. They aren’t there to stop the others from cheating. They are there so voters get to vote.”

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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.