Republicans push for changes to election procedures in Minnesota counties

Some counties have agreed to drop ballot boxes and add election judges at activists’ request

By: - June 30, 2022 9:10 am

Republican Secretary of State candidate Kim Crockett has been critical of Minneapolis election officials for having absentee ballot dropoff sites in 2020. They say her claims are inaccurate. File photo by Nicole Neri

Right-wing activists have been pushing county officials in Minnesota to stop using absentee ballot drop boxes and allow more partisan election judges on absentee ballot boards during the upcoming elections.

They’re having some success, too.

At residents’ urging, Kandiyohi and Dakota county officials won’t use drop boxes for absentee ballots this year. Dakota County will appoint election judges to its absentee ballot board, and election judges will be more involved in the absentee ballot process in Winona County.

Absentee ballot boards, traditionally staffed by government workers alongside election judges nominated by political parties, accept or reject absentee ballots.

The changes are part of a nationwide Republican push to get more GOP poll workers and watchers involved in elections, often fueled by the mistaken assumption that the 2020 election was stolen despite a lack of evidence for the claims. 

Minnesota has about 30,000 paid and volunteer election judges who help administer elections. They greet voters, accept ballots and help voters at the polls. Although the major political parties submit lists of nominees to the secretary of state’s office, most election judges are recruited by local election officials.

Local election officials — city and county employees — then train election judges and oversee them, while trying to ensure party balance among them, which can be challenging in heavily Republican or Democratic areas. 

Minnesota Republicans, who haven’t won a statewide race since 2006, have been recruiting election judges this year in the hope that having more Republican eyes on the polls will foil fraud and flip elections their way, despite a statutorily required audit process that found few irregularities in 2020 and nowhere near enough to change the results. 

Also puzzling about the fraud claims: Although former President Donald Trump lost here in 2020 by more than 200,000 votes, Republicans were successful in lower ballot races, maintaining control of the state Senate, picking up state House seats and flipping a congressional district. 

Kim Crockett, the GOP’s presumptive nominee for secretary of state, is part of a national right-wing network that’s recruiting what their leader calls “an army” of activists to become poll workers, raising alarm that they could cause chaos and intimidate voters. 

Crockett has claimed the city of Minneapolis “loves” ballot boxes and has “refused” to party-balance ballot boards. Jeff Narabrook, one of the city’s election administrators, said the city has never had unstaffed ballot drop boxes, but has had staffed dropoff sites, while maintaining party-balanced ballot boards.

Peter Bartz-Gallagher, a spokesman for the office of secretary of state, said a movement has sprung up around the idea that all ballot board members should be trained election judges, but that’s not necessary.

The right-wing activists are trying to normalize the idea that nonpartisan government workers can’t be trusted to fairly administer elections, he said.

“I think it’s dangerous and corrosive to suggest that county staff, government staff, are somehow biased or incapable of administering a free and fair election according to the law,” he said.

A key figure in this effort: Rick Weible, the former mayor of St. Bonifacius who has been spreading election fraud claims statewide under the moniker, “Swamp Watch,” said the law requires bipartisan oversight by partisan election judges.

“The law isn’t making an implication on the government workers,” he said. 

Kandiyohi County adds election judges, nixes drop boxes

Crockett has encouraged her supporters to lobby local officials to use election judges to accept or reject absentee ballots, providing a model resolution for her supporters to try to get county officials to use.

She also rails against ballot boxes, calling them a “very bad idea” in an email to supporters.

Crockett emailed an “urgent call to action” to her supporters on June 7 encouraging them to push for election judges — not just government workers — to be on ballot boards. She said it’s not enough “to have a token election judge or two” but enough election judges to accept or reject all of a county’s absentee ballots and “keep the vote honest.”

That same day, the Kandiyohi County Board voted to establish a ballot board with election judges and not use a drop box for absentee ballots this year. Until 2020, Kandiyohi had been using county workers when the county board voted to add election judges.

Crockett applauded Kandiyohi County’s move.

Dakota County to use election judges

That same day, June 7, a Dakota County Board committee was also lobbied by a right-wing group called “Dakota County Patriots” about its ballot board and absentee ballot drop boxes.

Weibel accompanied the group. About 20 League of Women Voters members also attended the meeting.

Two weeks later, the county board voted to dispense with the drop boxes it used outside its three service centers in 2020. Andy Lokken, the county elections director, said some cities in the county still plan to use drop boxes, even though activists have been lobbying them not to.

The board also voted to use election judges instead of just county employees, based on the activists’ request and a March Supreme Court opinion.

The Minnesota Voters Alliance sued counties in 2020, claiming deputy county auditors on ballot boards must be party-balanced, too, like election judges. The court found otherwise: Although election judges must be a part of ballot boards, there’s no requirement that the boards be filled primarily with election judges.

Crockett is a former legal policy advisor for the alliance, which bills itself as an “election integrity watchdog” that seeks to “increase voter participation,” and has taken legal action against Simon and counties over election administration.

Lokken said he didn’t hire election judges in the past; deputy county auditors did all the work.

Lokken was sanguine about the change. 

“The community didn’t want that anymore so we made that change,” Lokken said.

It will be less efficient, since he’ll have to schedule their work at particular times, but he said, “It’s not a big deal, we can work this into our system, and find efficiencies… just basically figure it out,” Lokken said. 

Lokken said this year he’s gotten about 250 election judge nominees from Democrats and 900 from Republicans.

Crockett celebrated the decision in an email to supporters, saying, “Our campaign has made these issues a central theme and worked with good citizens… to educate voters so they can help their local officials make good decisions.”

Lokken said he’s received “way more” public records requests than usual this year — most of them regarding 2020 and 2021 election results and most from the Dakota County Patriots. Often, they’re trying to track and verify the total number of voters, using a list of registered voters and their voting histories — which campaigns and political groups use to target voters. 

Lokken said those voter lists are not a reliable way to verify county vote totals. “It’s for candidates to go door knocking.”

Weible of Swamp Watch has used these voter lists to claim discrepancies, including 666 ballots in Dakota County not “connected” to registered voters. Election administrators say he’s going off incomplete information. 

Winona County unmoved

The Winona County Board also debated involving election judges more.

According to the Winona Post, Winona County Board member Steve Jacob lobbied to have partisan election judges more involved in the absentee voting process.

Winona County Auditor-Treasurer Sandra Suchla resisted, saying processing some ballots requires access to the statewide voter registration system, which includes private data and is limited to county workers.

Jacob, who is running for the state House, pushed Suchla to involve election judges more or risk a “public outcry.”

Suchla said in an interview that after she later showed board members the ballot chain of custody and existing safeguards, they were satisfied, and no other changes were made.

Swamp Watch makes waves in Sherburne County

In Sherburne County, Auditor/Treasurer Diane Arnold said a group affiliated with Weible’s Swamp Watch has “made itself known” in the county, with fliers, meetings and records requests. She’s had requests from the activists to go to paper ballots and hand counting, which is an antiquated way of counting ballots that could take weeks if done statewide.

Also: “As we know hand counting is not very accurate,” she said.

Arnold said she’s had more data requests than normal for an election year.

“They keep asking for one type of report but our (voting) equipment doesn’t have that information on it,” Arnold said.

The county uses Dominion voting systems, and “they just keep bringing up Georgia,” where right-wingers made baseless claims against the company. A hand tally of all the votes cast in Georgia confirmed President Joe Biden’s victory there on Nov. 19, 2020.  

Dominion has cleared several early legal hurdles in the midst of its multi-billion dollar defamation lawsuits against high-profile Trumpworld figures like Rudy Giuliani, Sydney Powell, Mike Lindell and FOX News.  

“My numbers are right,” Arnold said.

Anoka County election judges to be more involved

In Anoka County, Paul Linnell, the elections manager, said a group of activists has been attending county board meetings and talking to officials, but his election procedures will be very similar to the past.

There will be no absentee ballot drop box and there will continue to be party-balanced election judges on the county’s absentee ballot board. Linnell said the election judges may be more involved in accepting and rejecting absentee ballots, but not in response to pressure from activists.

Linnell said he’s also received some records requests from activists.

‘To say they’re nonpartisan isn’t really honest’

Weible, of Swamp Watch, said he’s talked to officials in 22 counties about going to hand counting and paper ballots, using more election judges, nixing drop boxes and improving security and transparency. Some county officials are willing to sit down and talk with activists, while others get confrontational, he said. 

He said drop boxes aren’t secure enough, and it’s not fair to just rely on county employees on ballot boards. 

“To say they’re nonpartisan isn’t really honest,” he said. 

​​Weible said his biggest success has been in educating voters on election law and how they can be a part of it, so people don’t feel disenfranchised and distrustful. 

Lokken of Dakota County said he’s not worried about activists trying to insert themselves into the process. “We’re gonna show people that the process is accessible and transparent. That’s important too.”

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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.