Conservative groups may be training Minnesota poll workers to gather data, potentially break the law

People voting at a polling place
Residents vote during primary elections at the Redeemer Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minn. on Aug 9.
Tim Evans for MPR News

As voters gear up for election day, the 30,000 Minnesotans who will volunteer to work the polls are preparing too. They’re officially called election judges, and they’re the temporary employees who process voter registrations, hand out ballots and report vote totals at the end of the night.

But some are planning to do more than that.

Conservative groups that have cast doubt on America’s elections are training poll workers to gather evidence of supposed irregularities this year. And the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office says in some cases, the groups may be training poll workers to break the law.

Curtis Gilbert is with APM Reports, the investigative reporting group based at American Public Media. He has been looking into these groups, and he joined Cathy Wurzer to talk about it.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY: And as voters gear up for election day tomorrow, the 30,000 Minnesotans who will volunteer to work the polls are preparing as well. They're officially called election judges, and they are the temporary employees who process voter registrations, hand out ballots, and report vote totals at the end of the night. But some are planning to do more than that.

Conservative groups that have cast doubt on America's elections are training poll workers to gather evidence of supposed irregularities this year. And the Minnesota Secretary of State's office says, in some cases, the groups may be training poll workers to break the law. Curtis Gilbert is with APM Reports, that's the investigative reporting group based at American Public Media. He's been looking into these groups, he joins us right now. Hey, Curtis.

CURTIS GILBERT: Hey, Cathy. How are you.

CATHY: Thanks. A very interesting story here. What do these groups, what are they looking for?

CURTIS GILBERT: Well, I think it's fair to say that they were inspired in large part by doubts about the 2020 elections. People who thought that Donald Trump won in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. So over the last year or a little more than a year, they've been organizing around Minnesota. They've been going to County Board meetings, they've been asking County officials to not use drop boxes for ballots, that's one big thing.

A lot of them are really, really skeptical of the machines that we use to count the votes here in Minnesota. In some cases, they've been asking to not even use machines to count the votes and do hand counts like we do in recounts for all the elections, which would take a really long time. So they've got a lot of, I would say, doubts about the fairness of Minnesota's elections.

CATHY: OK. What are they training the election judges to do. I thought the training came from the state of Minnesota and local state counties.

CURTIS GILBERT: Yeah. That is how it works. And all those entities are training election judges who actually have to go through training every year that you want to be an election judge, and the Secretary of State has a big handbook and all that thing. The counties run training. In some cases, the cities do trainings.

But there are supplemental trainings that these outside groups have been doing. And again, these are Conservative groups. Some of the things that they're asking election judges to do involves taking pictures of the election equipment. Remember, I mentioned they have lots of doubts about the machines and they think that there might be some funny business with the machines. So they want pictures of like the back of the machine, the serial number, this little place where any wires that might be coming out of there, that thing.

Also photos of like documents that you'd have access to as an election judge. There's something called the incident log anything out of the ordinary that might happen at a polling place on election day gets documented. They want pictures taken of those. And then those are all being sent to a central group. But there was some stuff that was a little more out there.

There was a group down in Olmsted County in Southern Minnesota that was asking its election judges to essentially try to hack, for lack of a better word, the Wi-Fi networks to try to rename their phones to masquerade as the Wi-Fi network that the poll books that they use to sign in voters are on Wi-Fi so they can see that you're registered to vote, that thing.

Anyway, so that seemed to me to be a little bit even more beyond just taking pictures of stuff and actually trying to penetrate the Wi-Fi system. Not that it would work, Secretary of State Steve Simon says, the instructions that the Southern Minnesota group was giving wouldn't actually do what they think it would do. But anyway, it was raised eyebrows to say the least.

CATHY: Is that legal?

CURTIS GILBERT: Well, Secretary of State Simon says, election judges who follow some of the advice that they're getting from these groups do risk breaking the law and even potentially committing crimes. I mean, election judges are government employees for that day that they are working at the polls. And they're supposed to take their marching orders from their bosses just like you and I take our marching orders from our bosses, right.

And so for them to be working for some other entity, presents some legal risks. And also, Secretary of State Simon said, taking photos of some of those documents like the incident log, that could have private information about voters on there. It's not necessarily something that can be shared with outside groups. There's a process for requesting public government documents.

We as reporters know that all too well. And it's not up to every individual temporary employee, which is what election judges are, to decide that oh yeah, this is public and I can send it off to another group. That was what the Secretary of State said.

CATHY: So are members of say, for example, the Olmsted County Group, are they working as election judges?

CURTIS GILBERT: Well, some of them are, and some of them have been removed. Some of them were on the list to serve as election judges. This year we know of now three of them who will not be serving as election judges tomorrow. Two because they are under criminal investigation, no one's been charged or anything. But there is a police investigation by the Rochester Police Department.

And then a third member of this Olmsted County group who was actually the one who sent out this email instructing people to try to disguise their phones as the Wi-Fi hotspot, we've just been told very recently this morning that he will not be working on election day. And we weren't given any more information than that, like the reason why he's not, but suffice it to say he will not be working.

CATHY: How many election judges do you think in Minnesota would be involved in this, who have been maybe trained by these groups. Any idea?

CURTIS GILBERT: Well, that's a really hard number to get your arms around. We were able to match up dozens of names by basically comparing lists of people who've shown up at County Board meetings, and raised concerns about elections, asked for them to do hand counts, sign petitions. Dozens of those people are showing up on rolls of election judges, but I think that obviously is a vast undercount.

Another data point I could give you is just the disparate enthusiasm called the enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans for serving as election judges this year. So two years ago, there were like 3,600 Republican election judges, or 3,300 Republican election judges who signed up with the Secretary of State's office ahead of time, and there were like half as many DFLers.

Well, this year, the Republican number doubled, OK. So now there's almost 8,000 Republicans who said in May that yeah, I'd like to be an election judge this year. The DFL Party actually missed the deadline to get its list in to the Secretary of State's office and only got 200 names in by the deadline. So there definitely is a lot of interest on the Conservative side in serving in this role that is different than what we've seen before.

Important to note that there will be roughly equal numbers of Democrat and Republican election judges at every polling place because state law requires that. So just because there's more enthusiasm on the Republican side doesn't mean there won't be party balance at the polling places.

CATHY: I'm going to assume that some election administrators are concerned about this.

CURTIS GILBERT: They are a little concerned about some of the advice that really goes too far. But that said, most election administrators we've talked to in Minnesota welcome those who are skeptical about elections to come in and be election judges, to see the process up close.

And the other thing I think because there is that party balance, you're always going to have a Republican and a DFL election judge at pretty much every polling place, they're watching each other. So the mutual distrust between the political parties is built into our election systems here in Minnesota. I mean this goes back to the Civil War era. [LAUGHS] That these laws have been on the books.

CATHY: Yes.

CURTIS GILBERT: There's a lot of divisiveness back then, as one election judge told me.

CATHY: To say the least. Say, for a voter who's going to maybe go to the polls tomorrow, should they be watching for anything or thinking about anything beyond what their task is?

CURTIS GILBERT: I mean, I think if they see something that alarms them, they certainly could say something. But I think it'll probably be fairly normal for the most part, you would hope. I mean, I don't know, elections are always a little bit boring when you actually show up and vote. Sign in, here's your ballot, get a sticker. [LAUGHS] It's pretty normal usually.

CATHY: All right. Interesting reporting. Thank you so very much for digging into this, Curtis.

CURTIS GILBERT: Oh, it was my pleasure.

CATHY: Absolutely. That was Curtis Gilbert, a correspondent for APM Reports. For more on this, by the way, you can go to our website mprnews.org

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