Right-wingers continue quest to change Minnesota elections; progressives form group to protect them

Rice County lawsuit could upend the November election, if successful

By: - October 25, 2022 6:01 am

Pastor Darryl Webb and other members of the new progressive coalition called We Choose Us outside the Ramsey County Courthouse last week. Photo by Deena Winter/Minnesota Reformer.

Right-wing activists are continuing an election-year campaign to change how Minnesota elections are administered — filing lawsuits, questioning the integrity of election equipment, pushing for hand counting of ballots and blanketing counties with records requests. 

A progressive coalition of two dozen groups is fighting back, countering election conspiracy claims because, they say, democracy hangs in the balance. 

To wit: A lawsuit filed by a Republican attorney has roiled a southeastern Minnesota county and prompted Secretary of State Steve Simon to intervene, warning that if the lawsuit is successful, it could upend elections across the state.

Albert Lea attorney Matt Benda — who unsuccessfully ran for former U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s 1st Congressional District seat after he died — sued Rice County in late August. He alleged the county refused requests for public information about election procedures, equipment and security. And, he claimed the county’s electronic voting system “has hardware, software or features that are not properly approved, certified or secure.” He wants the judge to forbid the county from using modems embedded in the voting equipment in the November election. 

The Office of the Secretary of State intervened in the lawsuit to defend the state’s election systems, saying every piece of electronic hardware and computer software the county will use on Nov. 8 has been properly tested and certified. Benda said the state certifications “do not cover any modeming functions.” Benda’s motion is scheduled for a hearing on Wednesday.

Resorting to a hand count is impractical at this point, and election hardware or software certified for use in Minnesota doesn’t use a modem to transmit official election results, the secretary of state’s office argued. The election system outputs election results by producing a hard copy, and then state law allows a modem to be used to transmit unofficial results.

Rice County’s ballot vendor — Election Systems and Software — is the vendor for most Minnesota counties. So if the judge should bar Rice County from using the system, that would likely have “severe consequences for the conduct of the elections across the state,” State Elections Director David Maeda said in a statement filed in the case. Benda said his motion before the court Wednesday doesn’t request a hand count; he only requests that the system’s optional modems not be used in the election. 

Leota Goodney of Northfield said right-wing activists have been lobbying Rice County commissioners for months, pushing for hand counts, questioning election hardware and software and opposing ballot drop boxes.

“I think there’s fairly widespread concern among the progressives in Northfield,” Goodney said.

Matt Hilgart, policy analyst for the Association of Minnesota Counties, said most of the right-wing push in Minnesota has been concentrated in four or five counties, where organized groups of activists have targeted county officials. 

“At this point it just sounds like election frustration,” he said. “I think many of those counties have tried to address all those concerns in very professional ways and gone above and beyond to try to meet with groups. Some have even changed some of their processes to try to help build some more confidence. But at a certain point, I don’t know that these groups want to be comforted by any of that.” 

A statewide coalition called We Choose Us — composed of 24 progressive organizations, unions and advocacy groups — recently formed to counteract misinformation about election administration. The $1 million push is funded by a donor-advised fund called Pro Democracy Campaign. In coming weeks, their members plan to attend county board meetings in Stearns, Rice, Carver and Olmsted counties.

The group formed in response to Trumpists peddling unsubstantiated arguments that former President Donald Trump won the election and stoking fear across the state about election security — despite statutorily required audits after 2020 that showed an accurate result. 

Among the people trafficking in conspiracy theories, especially in greater Minnesota: Seth Keshel, a self-described “nobody” from Fort Worth who rocketed to conspiracy theorist fame after he claimed Trump won the 2020 election. 

Then there’s Rick Weible, the former mayor of St. Bonifacius who has been traveling the state, posting YouTube videos falsely claiming election fraud and pushing for changes to election procedures, hardware and software.

Lilly Sasse, campaign director for We Choose Us, said a “small but loud” group of activists have taken their message undermining faith in elections to county boards around Minnesota. 

We Choose Us rose up to counter them with what she called “a robust statewide movement.” 

“From the January 6 insurrection to the spread of the Big Lie to election denier candidates running for every level of government to the increase in voter suppression legislation — democracy and freedom are under attack right here in Minnesota,” Sasse said. 

One of her group’s members, Lynn Rankinen, a leader of the progressive ecumenical group ISAIAH, successfully helped lobby against requests to hand-count elections in Dakota County. 

“It’s very disruptive and all rooted in a lie about our elections,” Rankinen said. “And (county) staff has been harassed and commissioners and elections officials have been bullied as a result of organizing across the country, and it’s deeply disturbing.”

Dakota County has been inundated with public records requests this year — most of them regarding 2020 and 2021 election results, and most from a right-wing group called Dakota County Patriots. 

Hilgart said Dakota County is not alone — some counties have been blitzed with requests for public data about election systems, and during the busiest time of year for elections officials.

“At a certain point it detracts from our professionals being able to administer and run the election in the way they should be doing it,” he said.

Some of the activists “might not be well-intentioned,” he said, but instead “trying to obstruct the process.”

MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and others have urged election conspiracy theorists to ask for public records such as “cast vote records.” That’s a document that ballot machines can generate showing how election software read cast ballots. Election conspiracy theorists have latched onto the records, believing they will show suspicious voting patterns. Experts say they’re wrong. 

Earlier this year, the Dakota County Board agreed not to use drop boxes for absentee ballots. They’ll use election judges to help administer elections instead of just county employees. 

Crow Wing County officials agreed to hand count November election results in twice as many precincts as state law requires and produce voting records of the 2020 election and August primary.

Activists persuaded Carver County officials to use as many partisan poll workers as possible — as opposed to county workers — during the November election, and to stop using absentee ballot boxes.

And numerous activists have attended Sherburne County Board meetings, led by Weible, and papered the county with fliers. Activists have scrutinized Sherburne’s use of Dominion voting systems, which Trump and his allies repeatedly castigated 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 move forward. 

Stearns County has also been roiled by activists. 

Stearns County Commissioner Joe Perske said in an interview that in almost 20 years of politics, he’s never seen such divisiveness in his county. 

The former elementary school teacher and Sartell city councilman and mayor said activists have been monopolizing a local radio show and besieging officials for about six months, pushing the board to eliminate voting machines and do hand-counts. 

Election administration experts say hand-counted ballots — especially on election night — are slow, labor-intensive and prone to human error by exhausted election workers. 

“They’re actually trying to undermine our democracy,” Perske said. “They’re trying to perpetuate mistrust of government and question the validity of a system that is not perfect, but nevertheless it has been very effective.” 

People have forgotten, he said, that votes are cast in church basements and school classrooms and community centers. 

“They’re counted in the neighborhood by people who live in the neighborhoods,” Perske said.

He said the county has 900 volunteers, and there’s never been proof of serious fraud or election tampering. 

Perske recently antagonized the activists by saying, “These people are not patriots, these people are pseudo-patriots, because they’re undermining democracy.”

They sent him what he calls “nastygrams” and called on him to apologize, but he refused. 

“They wanna wave the flag but they wanna burn the constitution,” he said.

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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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