Stealth video stirs GOP call for absentee ballot probe

A person puts a ballot in a box.
Voter Bo Carlock drops her ballot in the ballot box outside Minneapolis Elections & Voter Services in Minneapolis on Aug. 11.
Tom Baker for MPR News file

Republicans pushed Monday for investigations and a freeze in absentee voting amid allegations of ballot fraud in Minneapolis that were lodged through videos captured by a conservative outlet known for shady tactics.

Late Monday the Minneapolis Police Department issued a statement saying it was aware of the allegations of vote harvesting and in the process of looking into their validity.  

In Twitter barrages and in other statements, President Donald Trump and many Minnesota Republicans quickly circulated the Project Veritas report with warnings that the upcoming election was susceptible to fraud.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said he went to Project Veritas after two meetings with FBI agents earlier this year left him unconvinced there would be prompt action by authorities.

“We need to be very, very concerned,” Drazkowski told reporters while blaming policy decisions by state and local authorities to ease voting that occurs before Election Day through the mail or in person. “Now we are seeing the vulnerability being exploited in those very bad decisions.”

While any formal investigation into the allegations would take time, the splashy release just weeks before the November election could serve to diminish public faith in the voting process or lay groundwork for a legal challenge to the eventual results.

State Democrats charged that it was part of a propaganda effort aimed at hurting the ability of voters to participate in the November election.

“At a time when President Trump is trying to use fake claims of voter fraud to subvert a free and fair election, anyone that uses completely unverified information from a right-wing propaganda group to bolster the president’s bogus claims is doing real harm to our democracy,” DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said in a news release.

The allegations center on efforts to round up and deliver what appear to be scores of absentee ballots beyond what the law allows, although a quirk in timing could provide an exception. Between July 28 and Sept. 4 — the primary was in mid-August — the ballot collection limit of three per person was on hold due to a court order that was ultimately reversed by the Supreme Court.  

The Snapchat video that is the bedrock of the new report suggests the mass collection occurred in early July, but MPR News does not have an original copy. Drazkowski said he would release it only to news outlets that would publish the material online in full.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a favorite target of Republicans, is described as a beneficiary of the ballot push, but Drazkowski acknowledged having no direct evidence of her personal involvement or anything beyond a circumstantial link. 

The Secretary of State’s office said it lacked jurisdiction to conduct an investigation. Officials with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney in Minnesota wouldn’t comment on whether they have initiated probes. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, which would have jurisdiction to charge a case if a state law was violated, said it has received no cases referred from law enforcement related to what’s called ballot harvesting this year.

“The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office takes those cases very seriously and after every even-year election, we usually file a dozen or so cases involving some type of election violations, primarily felons voting despite still being on probation,” a statement from Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s office said. “If Project Veritas has evidence of election law violations, they should provide it to the Minneapolis Police Department.”

DFL Attorney General Keith Ellison defended Minnesota’s elections as “among the safest and most secure” in the nation.

"Anyone with legitimate information about any possible violation of Minnesota elections law should present it to the proper authority, just as I would do,” Ellison said in a written statement. He said Project Veritas “is not a trustworthy source.”

Project Veritas said Monday’s was the first of multiple dispatches from Minneapolis.

Cheered on the right for its take-no-prisoners approach to gathering information, the group and its founder, James O’Keefe, have been repeatedly accused of unsavory tactics. That includes deceptive editing, goading people into lodging false allegations and illegally entering a building in a bid to discredit a Democratic lawmaker.    

Rep. Omar’s campaign didn’t discuss the allegations included in the latest report and took issue with mainstream outlets picking up on it. The campaign also pointed to an Instagram post in which O’Keefe met last week with the Trump campaign’s Minnesota chairman, pillow manufacturer Mike Lindell. 

Campaign senior adviser Jeremy Slevin cast it as a distraction from another dominating the news recently.

“The amount of truth to this story is equal to the amount Donald Trump paid in taxes of 10 out of the last 15 years: zero,” Slevin said in a written statement. “And amplifying a coordinated right-wing campaign to delegitimize a free and fair election this fall undermines our democracy.”

MPR News attempted to reach a man who is seen in the video bragging about having collected multiple ballots, but a message was not returned. Minneapolis City Council member Jamal Osman, who is also cited in the report as benefitting from the efforts, posted on Facebook that he put an emphasis on running a “positive and ethical campaign.”

“I condemn behavior that contradicts these values. That is why I also condemn the continued attacks on the integrity of the East-African immigrant community in Minneapolis,” he wrote. “The community is proud to be here, passionate about exercising their constitutional right to vote and excited to elect the next President of the United States.”

Drazkowski said absentee voting should be halted until further notice. Senate State Government and Elections Committee Chair Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, didn’t go as far but also said no-excuse absentee voting is ripe for abuse.

“Voting in person at a polling place or official office is the best protection from this abuse,” she said.

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