Minnesota was part of quiet $32 million nationwide campaign to push back on election deniers

16 states were targeted by pro-democracy campaign whose funders are unknown

By: - January 18, 2023 3:35 pm

A coalition of 26 progressive organizations in Minnesota pushed back against election deniers in the midterms and now are supporting election reform that they say will allow more people to vote. Photo courtesy of Geoff Dittberner.

The right-wing Trumpists who said the 2020 election was rigged and sought to take control of election administration across the country — including here in Minnesota — received unending attention before the midterms. 

They were shadowed, however, by a Democratic-affiliated opposition coalition — backed by secret donors — who were working quietly to counteract the election deniers. 

Those opponents filled the Minnesota Capitol rotunda Tuesday, bearing colorful signs and shirts that said “We Choose Us” as DFL Attorney General Keith Ellison, Secretary of State Steve Simon and two DFL legislative leaders rallied them with speeches about saving democracy.

The progressive coalition of 26 groups gathered in support of legislation they say would save and expand democracy, and defeat right-wing voices that have refused to accept the 2020 election results, pushed for hand-counting ballots and want to make voting more difficult. 

The We Choose Us coalition then dispersed across the Capitol to lobby lawmakers to support automatic voter registration, restoration of voting rights to some 60,000 people on parole or probation, limits on dark money in elections and increased public campaign financing.

The well-organized, slick campaign didn’t just spontaneously spring from the ground, however. It’s part of a $32 million nationwide campaign that began before the midterms — but flew under the radar as they worked to counteract former President Donald Trump’s acolytes and election deniers, Politico recently reported.

Veteran progressive operative David Donnelly was behind the national campaign but declined to disclose to Politico the source of funding that flowed to 126 groups in 16 states. The Minnesota coalition had already formed when the national group sent it $1 million, Politico reported.

The Reformer reported in October that the $1 million Minnesota campaign was funded by a donor-advised fund called the Pro-Democracy Campaign. 

We Choose Us Campaign Director Lilly Sasse said the group coalesced in June to promote a multiracial democracy. Armed with national funding, the group sought to respond to a group of right-wing activists who tried to undermine faith in elections around Minnesota, bombarding county officials with election data requests and stoking fear about election security.

We Choose Us staff and volunteers fanned out to Dakota, Stearns, Rice, Carver and Olmsted counties, urging county officials reject GOP calls for hand counting ballots  and claims that election equipment was outdated and insecure.

Now, We Choose Us has turned its attention to legislation they say would strengthen democracy: The Democracy for the People Act.

One member of the group, Patrick Maxley, an organizer with New Justice Project Minnesota, said he is a formerly homeless, recovering addict who was able to vote in the election. Now he wants to extend voting rights to people who have served their time in jail or prison.

“We want to live, to contribute and feel a sense of purpose,” he said.

Unidos leader Lupe Tejada Diaz said automatic voter registration opens the door for people who may not know they have the right to vote, especially young people.

The bill contains provisions ensuring language access in places where people need help understanding election rules.

Yusuf Omar of the progressive ecumenical group ISAIAH said his family members who are Somali immigrants have faced harassment and intimidation as they struggle with language barriers while trying to vote in Minnesota.

The bill would also update the state political contribution refund — in which Minnesotans can get $50 in campaign contributions reimbursed by the state — by giving every registered voter a $50 coupon to donate to candidates.

Halley Norman grew up in Seattle, where a program called Democracy Dollars gave voters $100 vouchers to support campaigns to help level the playing field between wealthy donors and regular people. She advocated for a similar program in Minnesota.

Simon spoke in support of automatic voter registration and restoring voting rights, saying the past few years have been a “massive stress test for democracy.”

“The voters of Minnesota and many other places in this country spoke loudly and clearly. They gave us directions. Democracy was on the ballot and they said they wanted more of it.”

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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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