How are Minnesota election officials responding to concerns over vote security?

A black box with a computer like device on top.
A ballot box awaits votes inside of Hazel Park Preparatory Academy in St. Paul on Nov. 5.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

The first day of early voting is Friday, September 23rd and there’s a lot of conversation about election integrity. How sure are we that our vote is being counted accurately?

A MPR News/Star Tribune/KARE 11 Minnesota poll released this week shows 56 percent of Minnesota voters say they have a high amount of confidence in our state’s voting system.

Another 27 percent have a moderate amount of confidence. But still — across the state — county officials are hearing from people demanding changes to the voting process.

Who are they? Well, to look at those poll results a different way, 91 percent of Democrats have a high amount of confidence in the state’s election system versus 21 percent of Republicans and 53 percent of independents.

MPR News reporter Kirsti Marohn has been looking into this and speaks with guest host Melissa Townsend.

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Audio transcript

MELISSA TOWNSEND: This is Minnesota Now. I'm Melissa Townsend, in for Cathy Wurzer. The first day of early voting is Friday, and there's a lot of conversation about election integrity. How sure we are that our vote is being counted accurately?

An MPR News/Star Tribune KARE 11 Minnesota poll, released just this week, shows 56% of Minnesota voters say they have a high amount of confidence in our state's voting system. Another 27% have a moderate amount of confidence.

But still, across the state, county officials are hearing from people demanding changes to the voting process. NPR reporter Kirsty Marone has been looking into this, and she joins me now. Welcome back to Minnesota Now, Kirsty.

KIRSTY MARONE: Thanks, Melissa.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: So you focused on a few counties in greater Minnesota. How did you hear about what was happening there?

KIRSTY MARONE: Well, I kept hearing about some counties in the region that I cover, where there were people coming to county board meetings week after week, and asking these same similar questions. And that's kind of unusual, right? Because there's generally not a lot of public interest in the election process.

It's sort of this technical thing that most people don't really care a whole lot about. But in this case, they were asking questions about the process, the voting machines, and making public data requests that, in some cases, were copied and pasted, or the questions were very similar. Clearly they were getting them from similar sources.

So, election officials have been trying to answer those questions, but these groups, these people have not been satisfied. And the election officials are saying it's because, in large part, people are reading information online that maybe doesn't pertain to Minnesota elections, or is just not accurate.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: In that poll I mentioned in the intro, 91% of Democrats have a high amount of confidence in the state's election system, versus 21% of Republicans and 53% of independents. So, these folks in greater Minnesota, do you have a sense of their political affiliation?

KIRSTY MARONE: Well, I cover central Minnesota. Crow Wing County up in the Brainerd area is one where this has been happening quite frequently. Also, Sherburne County. I think, in Crow Wing, about 64% voted for Trump in the last presidential election, and Sherburne County was, like, 65%. And they do tend to lean more conservative, and also, I think, tend to turn to more conservative media sources as well, for their news and election coverage.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Mm-hmm. Got it. Well, let's take a listen to your story.

KIRSTY MARONE: With the November vote less than two months away, Deborah Erickson is deep into all the planning and prep work that goes into running a county-wide election, like finalizing ballots and training election judges.

But Erickson, Crow Wing County's Administrative Services Director, is also spending considerable time talking about the last election, almost two years ago.

DEBORAH ERICKSON: I did not think I'd still be talking and working on 2020 stuff in September of 2022.

KIRSTY MARONE: 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.

SPEAKER: I'm not saying any of us are involved in manipulation of votes, but I hope you would realize, with machines, it can happen right under our noses, and we would never even suspect a thing.

KIRSTY MARONE: That's Carol [? Odison ?] of Cross Lake at a board meeting in August. She and others have questioned the county's use of Dominion voting machines, suggesting that 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. Erickson says she's happy to answer questions, even welcomes that part of her job, but she says some are based on misinformation that's being spread online, that's either inaccurate or doesn't pertain to elections in Minnesota or Crow Wing County.

DEBORAH ERICKSON: With information available at our fingertips, whether we like it or not, sometimes the information that people are seeing is not true and accurate.

KIRSTY MARONE: Erickson says 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. She says there was no evidence of any discrepancies.

DEBORAH ERICKSON: 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.

KIRSTY MARONE: 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, having election judges from different political parties at polling sites, and auditing 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 everyone. Some want the county to stop using vote counting machines altogether, and return to the days of hand counting paper ballots. Erickson says, with the number of races on the ballot, that's impractical, and likely would be less accurate.

DEBORAH ERICKSON: It would take multiple days, oodles of dollars, 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.

KIRSTY MARONE: These questions aren't being raised only here 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 says she hasn't been politically active in the past, but has grown concerned about election integrity after learning of allegations of fraud from alternative news sources and documentaries like 2000 Mules.

JENNIFER PETERSON-ROSS: I didn't approach this from the left or the right. 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, right? And just the defensiveness that I have been met with, the most bizarre thing.

KIRSTY MARONE: Elections officials say they've tried to respond to the call for more transparency, but the group's demands keep changing.

STEVE SIMON: Every citizen should feel free to ask questions, including hard questions of their government at every level.

KIRSTY MARONE: DFLer, Steve Simon, is Minnesota's Secretary of State.

STEVE SIMON: But this feels very different. This isn't about finding common ground on election administration. This is about an organized outside effort to undermine and poison well-earned public confidence in our election system.

KIRSTY MARONE: Simon says, many of the accusations are baseless, like claims about dominion voting machines. He says six of Minnesota's 87 counties use them, and there have been no issues.

STEVE SIMON: And 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. And all of that checking and that balancing is done in full view of the public.

KIRSTY MARONE: Simon says, some requests are impossible to meet, like numerous data requests counties are receiving for the cast vote record, an electronic record of how an individual voted. He says, vote tabulating machines can only produce a cast vote record if that feature is turned on ahead of time, which no Minnesota county did in 2020. And there are questions whether such data is even public under Minnesota law.

Erickson says, the Crow Wing County Board agreed to produce cast vote records for this fall's election, for anyone who requests it, but she says the report needs to be randomized, so a ballot can't be traced back to an individual voter.

DEBORAH ERICKSON: 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.

KIRSTY MARONE: In Sherburne County, a group has repeatedly raised concerns about election integrity. Although, County Auditor Treasurer, Diane Arnold, says there were no inconsistencies with the 2020 results.

DIANE ARNOLD: The only thing that was unusual was COVID, COVID-19.

KIRSTY MARONE: Arnold says, she and her staff follow election procedures carefully. In fact, she says a recount in a close state senate race two years ago found no discrepancies in the vote total.

DIANE ARNOLD: I'll stand behind my numbers. They're there. I know what they are, and they're solid.

KIRSTY MARONE: State and local officials, and groups like the 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. Michelle Witte is the League's Executive Director.

MICHELLE WITTE: And in a lot of ways, I feel like that could be a good cure. Because once you get in and see how the system is run, you'll see that what you think can happen can't.

KIRSTY MARONE: Meanwhile, election officials say they'll continue to be open to answering honest questions as they gear up for the next big challenge on November 8. Kirsty Marone, NPR News, Brainerd.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Really interesting story, Kirsty. It sounds like the election judges and the election officials are, like, we promise, everything is fine. But there's this insatiable criticism or concern. Do you feel like there will ever be a point, or that there is something that the election officials can say that would satisfy the critics or the folks who are skeptical?

KIRSTY MARONE: I think some of these election officials are starting to feel like nothing they say will satisfy these skeptics. And in part, I think there's some concern-- I think you heard it there from the Secretary of State, Steve Simon, that some of these concerns are being driven by outside groups that are really trying to foster disbelief and mistrust in the system, which is really a concern.

I think there are a lot of local people who just really want to understand the process better, and election officials say they're happy to answer questions. But you're just seeing, in some cases, like I said in the story there, they're asking for data that is just really difficult to provide.

And they, in some cases, want changes to the system that election officials say would make it actually less accurate. If you go back to hand counting ballots, and get rid of the vote counting machines, that's actually tends to be less accurate.

It happens late at night, people are tired. When you've got humans involved, there's just bound to be more mistakes. So, I think they're really saying transparency is great, but let's make sure we're doing it right.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Right. One of the election officials invited people to become a voting judge, right? And I remember a story in the last election about there being a shortage of election judges because of threats and harassment. Do you know if, in this coming election, folks are nervous about playing those roles at the polls?

KIRSTY MARONE: Well, it's interesting. I know that election officials at the county and state level are thinking about election security and making sure that the polls are safe. I thought that there might be some impact on the number of people signing up to be election judges, but actually, in the counties I spoke with, they said they're seeing an increase in the number of people signing up, which they think is a great thing.

Obviously, we need a lot of them, like, 30,000 in Minnesota are needed. So it's a really important job, and getting involved in the process is a great way to get those questions answered that you have, and see firsthand how that process works.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Mm-hmm. Last question for you. You mentioned several things that voting officials are doing to try and maintain the integrity of the vote. Based on your research, is there anything they're not doing?

KIRSTY MARONE: That's interesting. I think Minnesota is recognized for having a good system, and these safeguards are in place in all counties in Minnesota. The other thing we have here that some other states don't have is we still vote on paper ballots.

If there is some question or concern about the counting machines, they always have that paper record. I think the counties are following a statewide procedure. And things like not having the optical scan machines connected to the internet, only at the very end when they're sending the final tally in, but not during voting, just to make them less vulnerable to hacking, those kinds of things.

And election officials say, of course, no system is perfect. They're always concerned about the potential for something to happen. So, they're always looking for ways to improve it.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Interesting. Kirsty, great reporting. Thank you for this important story.

KIRSTY MARONE: Thanks, Melissa.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Kirsty Marone is a reporter for NPR News based in Collegeville, Minnesota.

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