GOP activists lobby Carver, Sherburne county officials to do hand counts of paper ballots   

State elections director and League of Women Voters try to correct misinformation

By: - July 21, 2022 6:00 am

State Elections Director David Maeda looks on as a woman yells about election fraud claims during a break in a Sherburne County Board meeting Tuesday, July 12, 2022. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

Right-wing activists are pressuring county officials in Minnesota to change election procedures and move to hand-counting paper ballots, which election administrators say would be an unwieldy nightmare.

In recent weeks, the GOP activists have lobbied for changes in Carver and Sherburne counties. 

Minnesota Republicans, who haven’t won a statewide race since 2006, have also been pushing hard to recruit like-minded election judges in the hopes that more Republican eyes on the polls will foil perceived fraud and flip elections their way. Election judges — who are poll workers — greet voters, accept ballots and help voters at the polls.

It’s all part of a nationwide Republican push to get more GOP watchers involved in elections, fueled by false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. A legally required post-election audit in Minnesota found few irregularities in 2020 — nowhere near enough to change the results.

The activists accuse county boards of using antiquated voting systems. Instead of city and county workers, they want more partisan election judges on ballot boards, which decide whether or to accept or reject absentee ballots. They’re also urging counties to stop using absentee ballot drop boxes. 

The League of Women Voters of Minnesota has been showing up at county board meetings, too, urging commissioners not to buy into misinformation.

Numerous people showed up for a recent Sherburne County Board of Commissioners meeting, led by Rick Weible, the former mayor of St. Bonifacius who has been spreading election fraud claims under the moniker and website he calls “Midwest Swamp Watch.” Activists affiliated with Weible have been showing up at meetings and papering Sherburne County with fliers.

Rick Weible has been pushing county officials in Minnesota to change election procedures, claiming the 2020 election was fraudulent. He lobbied the Sherburne County Board on July 12, 2022. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

Activists have scrutinized Sherburne’s use of Dominion voting systems, which former President Donald Trump and his allies repeatedly castigated in 2020 to buttress their election fraud claims. Dominion has sued multiple Trump allies for billions of dollars and won several early judicial decisions allowing the suits to continue.

Weible accused the county of failing to give 60 days notice and do six weeks of public demonstrations, which is required by law for a new voting system. County officials risk getting charged with an election violation, he said. He and others claimed the voting system uses an obsolete operating system.

State Elections Director David Maeda attended the meeting, too, and tried to correct misinformation. He has been involved in election administration for 26 years, supervising elections in Washington County, Hennepin County and Minnetonka.

Maeda said Weible read the voting system’s test lab report wrong; the county didn’t get a new voting system, it merely upgraded it, which he likened to updating an iPhone. Voting systems include everything from pens to secrecy sleeves, he said, and the county doesn’t have to do a public demonstration every time they buy new pens, for example.

Weible disagrees with Maeda’s interpretation of the law.

Steve Nelson of Elk River asked the board to do a hand count of the primary election and possibly the general election “until we get this sorted out.”

Maeda said the push for hand counts greatly concerns him, because the smallest precinct has 93 registered voters. But it’s not just a matter of counting 93 ballots; every ballot has multiple races, and each race must be counted individually. So election officials would have to count 93 ballots multiple times.

For larger towns, it’s “not even a remote possibility” the hand count could be done within 24 hours, Maeda said.

Hand counts are more expensive and less accurate than machine counts, Maeda said. And you don’t want election judges — citizens nominated by political parties — who’ve been working the polls since 6 a.m. to then hand count ballots into the night.

State Elections Director David Maeda corrects misinformation at the Sherburne County Commission meeting on July 12, 2022. Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

Michelle Witte, executive director of the League of Women Voters, told the Sherburne County board that misinformation about the 2020 election is undermining voter confidence and fueling “dangerous hostility” toward election officials. She asked the board to ward off unfounded claims and affirm that the elections were fair and accurate.

Maeda explained that Minnesota voting systems are federally certified by an accredited test lab. The state then certifies the vendor and requires a copy of the federal test lab report. The state then tests the system to ensure it adheres to state laws. The state runs hundreds of ballots through each tabulator to make sure they work, he said.

Three election vendors have certified voting systems in Minnesota: 78 counties use Election Systems & Software, which is based in Omaha, Nebraska. Six counties use Dominion Voting Systems of Denver. And three counties use Hart InterCivic of Austin, Texas. 

After the election, results are hand-counted and compared to the voting machine results in randomly selected precincts. If the difference is more than one-quarter of 1%, more precincts are hand-counted. And if there are still enough differences, the entire county is recounted. 

Since 2006, the state hasn’t had to escalate to more recounts, Maeda said.

Sherburne County had a recount requested for a Senate race in 2020, he said, and all three precincts were counted accurately.

On to Carver

Weible and about 60 people also showed up at a Carver County Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday — about half of them right-wing activists who lobbied for hand counts, party-balanced election judges and eliminating absentee ballot boxes.

Weible made similar claims, saying the county is using outdated voting machine operating systems and considering assistive technology that requires public notice and six weeks of public demonstrations. Given that, Weible asked the board to do a hand count for the primary election.

Former Minnetrista City Council member Shannon Bruce pushed for party-balanced election judges on absentee ballot boards, saying it would give Minnesotans trust in the election outcome. Bruce chairs GOP-endorsed Secretary of State candidate Kim Crockett’s campaign. Crockett is part of a national right-wing network recruiting an army of activists to become poll workers, stoking fear among Democratic voting rights activists that they’ll seek to intimidate voters. 

Both Crockett and Bruce are former policy advisors to the Minnesota Voters Alliance, which bills itself as an “election integrity watchdog” that seeks to increase voter participation but has taken legal action against the secretary of state and counties over election administration.

Weible said the county disagreed with his interpretation of the law, but the issue will continue to be discussed on Aug. 2.

Weible said his group is also looking at other counties that also didn’t give notice of equipment upgrades that he said require public notice and demonstrations.

The group could take legal action to contest the issues, a Sherburne county commissioner noted.

Weible hinted legal action may be coming regarding other issues he plans to take up with the Secretary of State’s Office. Asked whether he’s just looking for technicalities to push for hand counts, he said the law matters. 

This story was updated at 12:07 p.m. Thursday to correct and clarify details of state election law. 

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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.