Voting officials: Misinformation fueling election skepticism
With the 2022 election less than two months away, Deborah Erickson is deep into the planning and prep work that goes into a running county-wide vote, such as finalizing ballots and training election judges.
But the Crow Wing County's administrative services director is also spending considerable time talking about the last election almost two years ago.
"I did not think I'd still be talking and working on 2020 stuff in September of 2022,” Erickson said.
For months, a group of area residents has been speaking at Crow Wing County board meetings, questioning the 2020 vote and the process the county uses to count ballots.
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They have questioned the county's use of Dominion voting machines, suggesting they could be hacked or tampered with. They've asked for detailed voting data from 2020, and unsuccessfully asked for a state audit of the election results.
"I'm not saying any of us are involved in manipulation of votes,” said Carol Ottoson of Crosslake, at a board meeting in August. “But I hope you would realize with machines, it can happen right under our noses, and we would never even suspect a thing.”
Erickson said she's happy to answer questions, and even welcomes that part of her job.
But she said some are based on misinformation being spread online that's either inaccurate, or doesn't pertain to elections in Minnesota or Crow Wing County.
"With information available at our fingertips, whether we like it or not, sometimes the information that people are seeing is not true and accurate,” Erickson said.
Across Minnesota, county officials are encountering people questioning the results of the 2020 election and demanding changes to the voting process, although there is no proof of widespread fraud or other problems.
The 2020 election went very smoothly in Crow Wing County, in spite of the pandemic and more people than ever casting ballots early or by mail, Erickson said. She said there was no evidence of any discrepancies.
"What we've been trying to do is explain our processes and show what all the safeguards are that are in place, hopefully to instill some confidence in folks,” she said.
In Minnesota, those safeguards include testing optical scan machines in public before election day; not connecting the machines to the Internet during voting so they're not vulnerable to hacking; using paper ballots so there's a record that can be checked; and having election judges from different political parties at polling sites.
There’s also a requirement to audit the votes in randomly chosen precincts after the election. The Crow Wing County board recently voted to double the number of precincts it will audit this fall, from two to four.
But that didn't satisfy all of the skeptics. Some want the county to stop using vote counting machines altogether and return to the days of hand counting paper ballots.
With the number of races on the ballot, Erickson said that's impractical, and likely would be less accurate.
"It would take multiple days, oodles of dollars,” she said. “And there is more opportunity for error with a hand count process than there is in using a trusted verified system like an optical scan system."
These questions aren't being raised only in Crow Wing County. Local residents and sometimes outside activists have attended board meetings in Sherburne, Carver and other counties, sometimes repeating unproven or debunked claims of election fraud.
Jennifer Peterson-Ross, a Crookston business owner, recently voiced her concerns at a Polk County board meeting.
She said she hasn't been politically active in the past, but has grown concerned about election integrity after learning of allegations of fraud and ballot box stuffing from alternative news sources and films such as "2000 Mules,” released earlier this year by conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza.
"I didn't approach this from the left or the right,” Peterson-Ross said. “I am just an American that wants a free and safe election. I want to know that when I cast my vote, that my vote is ultimately what the vote is.”
She said elections officials have responded to her questions with defensiveness, which she called “the most bizarre thing.”
Elections officials said they've tried to respond to the call for more transparency, but the groups' demands keep changing.
"Every citizen should feel free to ask questions, including hard questions of their government at every level,” said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a DFLer.
However, he said, the recent challenging of county officials “feels very different.”
“This isn't about finding common ground on election administration,” Simon said. “This is about an organized outside effort to undermine and poison well earned public confidence in our election system."
Simon said many of the accusations are baseless, such as claims about Dominion voting machines. Six of Minnesota's 87 counties use them, and there have been no issues, he said.
"We know, because of the various checks and balances we have in our system in Minnesota, that all those tabulating machines perform up to very rigorous standards,” Simon said. “All of that checking and that balancing is done in full view of the public."
Some requests are impossible to meet, he said, such as numerous data requests counties are receiving for the cast vote record, or CVR, an electronic record of how an individual voted.
Vote tabulating machines can only produce a CVR if that feature is turned on ahead of time, which no Minnesota county did in 2020, Simon said. And there are questions whether such data is even public under Minnesota law, he said.
The Crow Wing County board agreed to produce cast vote records for this fall's election for anyone who requests it. But Erickson said the report needs to be randomized, so a ballot can't be traced back to an individual voter.
"Every voter's right to cast a secret ballot is ultimately that bedrock of our democracy, of making sure that we have that safeguard in place,” she said.
In Sherburne County, a group has repeatedly raised concerns about election integrity, although county auditor-treasurer Diane Arnold said there were no inconsistencies with the 2020 results.
"The only thing that was unusual was COVID-19," she said.
Arnold said she and her staff follow election procedures carefully. In fact, a recount in the close state Senate District 14 race two years ago found no discrepancies in the vote total.
"I'll stand behind my numbers,” Arnold said. “I know what they are, and they're solid."
State and local officials and the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Minnesota have launched efforts to try to debunk misinformation about elections.
They're also encouraging people to sign up to be one of Minnesota's 30,000 election judges, a critical role that offers a firsthand look at the voting process.
"In a lot of ways, I feel like that could be a good cure,” said Michelle Witte, the league's executive director. “Because once you get in and see how the system's run, you'll see that what you think can happen can't."
Arnold said Sherburne County has seen a “huge outpouring” in people wanting to become an election judge, which she believes is a positive thing.
“If younger people are able to do it, that would be awesome — to really learn the system and learn, learn all the checks and balances and stuff that we have in place,” she said.