Election deniers in Minnesota are training some election judges

A person tests a ballot counting machine
George Bonnell handles a sample ballot during a voting machine demonstration on Wednesday in Brooklyn Park, Minn.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Updated: Nov. 7, 3:30 p.m. | Posted Nov. 4, 4 a.m.

The email from the head of the “Olmsted County Election Integrity” group inviting Jim Anderson to an online training session for election judges looked official. Anderson had served as a judge before, and the email seemed like part of the normal process to prepare him for the 2022 election.

But as he joined the Zoom call, it was clear to him there was nothing normal about the training — and it definitely was not from Olmsted County, which is in charge of training election judges. “They said, well, ‘You know our real president isn’t in office,’” he recalled. “That’s about the time I hit ‘end.’”

Another email from Olmsted County Election Integrity arrived about a week later, this time urging Anderson to rename his smartphone to masquerade as the Wi-Fi network of the polling place where he’d be stationed on Election Day. 

The goal, it said, was to capture data being sent over that network and expose an imagined security vulnerability. 

The emailer also asked him to photograph vote counting machines and various documents and forward it all to the group’s leader. Anderson notified city election officials, worried the group was encouraging election judges to break the law. 

Anderson didn’t know that Rochester police were already investigating two members of the group who served as election judges in the August primary. MPR News typically does not name suspects unless they are charged with a crime.

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The city, which hires election workers, hasn’t scheduled those poll workers for Election Day as they await the results of those investigations. 

However, the group’s attempts to influence the behavior of election judges and persuade them to commit possibly unlawful acts has alarmed state and local officials.

Dozens of people who’ve raised doubts about elections to Minnesota County boards over the last year appear on rosters of election judges compiled by APM Reports, an investigative reporting group and sister organization of MPR News.

A man poses with his dog
Rochester election judge Jim Anderson at his home on Monday. Anderson said an email from a local election integrity group directing poll workers to photograph election equipment and poll documents concerned him so much he sent it to local election officials.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

‘I'm gonna push a little harder’

Olmsted County Election Integrity is part of a widespread effort across the country by people who doubt the legitimacy of the 2020 elections and who’ve pushed hard in this election cycle to recruit and install poll workers who share their beliefs.

Nationally, the movement is led by Cleta Mitchell, a former attorney for former President Donald Trump who was on the infamous phone call where Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to find him 11,000 votes.

In Minnesota, the movement has given rise to a constellation of self-styled election integrity groups scattered around Minnesota. 

They take their cues from a variety of state and national leaders, including Rick Weible, the former mayor of St. Bonafacius who runs a website called MidWest Swamp Watch, and Dale Witherington, an evangelical pastor who believes Marxism, fascism, socialism and Islam are “working together to destroy our nation,” according to a video posted on one of his web pages. Both have raised doubts about the 2020 election.

Witherington hosted the Zoom call Anderson mistakenly believed was an official election judge training session, along with a staffer from the Republican National Committee. 

Weible has come to Rochester several times to coach locals through what he believes are inconsistencies in Minnesota’s voting data. 

Roger Mueller, chair of Olmsted County Election Integrity, said his organization has done nothing wrong and argues the government is acting like it has something to hide. 

“They're not complying with our data requests or anything else. So what else are you gonna do?” he said. “Are you going to just give up and suck your thumb? Or are you going to push a little harder, and I'm going to push a little harder.”

The county says it has provided details and data to Mueller’s group, which has falsely claimed that the county’s 2020 election results didn’t add up. 

Officials there have shown that the group’s arithmetic was off. In September, the group arranged to direct their questions through County Board Chair Mark Thein. Asked about the group and their actions for this story, Thein declined comment. 

Inspired by Donald Trump’s lies about stolen elections, groups like Mueller’s have popped up all over Minnesota in the last couple years, demanding data and interrogating officials. They want audits of the 2020 results, oppose drop boxes for absentee ballots and distrust the machines that count the votes. 

A box of testing documents
A box of sample ballots awaits unsealing during a voting machine demonstration on Wednesday in Brooklyn Park, Minn.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

They've become fixtures at county board meetings around the state. Board meetings in Sherburne, Carver, Wright, Stearns and Dakota counties this year have seen election deniers sound off at the podium alleging officials know of massive fraud and won’t do anything about it.

None of it is true, yet groups that support these views are training election officials.

“This is a real threat. It's one that is not just sort of a hypothetical remote one,” said David Levine with Alliance for Securing Democracy, a national organization that tracks interference with democratic institutions in the US and abroad. 

Election administrators, he said, need to do more to screen people who apply to be poll workers and keep an eye on those they suspect of ulterior motives. "This is a concerted effort by a significant portion of the American electorate, albeit a minority, to undermine American elections and American democracy more broadly."

Mueller had been hired as an election judge, but following the publication of this story the city of Rochester said in a statement to MPR News that Mueller was no longer scheduled to work on Election Day.

The statement did not say why but noted the decision was not connected to the current Rochester police investigation into poll workers.

‘Bad, false advice’

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, the state’s top election official, has long encouraged anyone with doubts about elections to volunteer at the polls so they can see the safeguards firsthand. But Simon, who is running for reelection as a DFLer next week, expressed alarm at the supposed training and advice provided by outside groups.

Two men stand in a room
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon talks with Brooklyn Park city clerk Devin Montero during a voting machine demonstration in Brooklyn Park, Minn. on Wednesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Simon said the Wi-Fi trick that Olmsted County Election Integrity urged Anderson to try wouldn’t work but that forwarding information to outside groups could run afoul of laws designed to protect private information about voters. There’s a legal process for groups to request data from the government. It’s not up to temporary poll workers to decide what’s public or not.  

Election judges also are not supposed to be following instructions from political parties or other outside groups, and they take an oath to follow the duties of their job according to the law.  

“They cannot, while they are on the clock working for the city, be doing work for or on behalf of any other organization,” he said. “If people follow the bad, false advice being given in the email that I've seen, they are in essence asking people to potentially violate that law as well.”

Some organizations disagree.

"These election judges are citizens first,” said Jonathan Aanestad, a GOP public affairs strategist and founder of Minnesota Election Integrity Solutions, one of the groups training poll workers. 

Aanestad said he doesn’t buy into conspiracy theories about stolen elections but that there’s nothing wrong with election judges sharing information with groups like his.

“We're not advocating that they look for problems. We're advocating that they monitor their own polling place, and if there is a problem document it,” he said. 

Aanestad’s group asked Olmsted County Election Integrity to send pictures of voting machines and incident logs, and to document any Wi-Fi networks in the area.

However, he said renaming phones to impersonate the voting facility’s hotspot — as was called for by Olmsted County Election Integrity — is not supposed to be part of the training. He called it “a bad idea.”

A person tests a ballot counting machine
George Bonnell tests a ballot counting machine during a demonstration on Wednesday in Brooklyn Park, Minn.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

State law requires each polling place to have roughly the same number of Democrats and Republicans working there. But data from the Secretary of State’s office shows Republicans have put more effort into recruiting Minnesota election judges than they did in the 2020 election cycle, and way more than the DFL. 

In May, the state Republican Party sent a list of 7,800 potential judges to the state — more than twice as many as they sent in the last presidential election. The DFL, meanwhile, submitted a list of just 200 names ahead of the state’s statutory deadline, although chair Ken Martin said the party subsequently made sure it has enough election judges to staff every precinct.

Even so, vetting for election judges is minimal. State law requires poll workers to be able to speak English. They can’t be on the ballot or related to someone on the ballot. There’s no requirement that workers be asked if they believe the legitimacy of past elections. 

‘But how could Biden have won?’

In September, Olmsted County Administrator Heidi Welsch and her staff met with Mueller’s group for three hours and spent lots of time responding to their questions and data requests. 

Welsch told them there are plenty of safeguards to ensure elections are fair and secure, and those make it nearly impossible for a few people to disrupt the process or alter the outcome of the election.

However, she said nothing she does seems to convince them that the 2020 election was fair. 

“They continue to go back to, ‘But how could Biden have won?’” Welsch said, a sentiment that frustrates her. 

“We are your neighbors, your friends, your family … We are here to serve the community, so it's really hard, this kind of questioning of the integrity of our staff,” she said.

Anderson, the election judge alarmed by the tactics of Olmsted County Election Integrity, is a lifelong Republican who describes himself as a moderate. He said many people he knows through local GOP politics are buying into conspiracy theories. 

He said he’s been adrift politically since Trump’s 2016 presidential victory, looking for a political home that doesn’t involve lies.

“There is some kind of a tunnel these people get caught in,” he said. “The word I heard once was rabbit hole. And if you get all your information out of the rabbit hole, what do you believe?”