Voter issue becomes subject of federal lawsuit
A federal lawsuit based on voting rights named two Crow Wing County elected officials, the secretary of state and attorney general as defendants.
Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan and Auditor-Treasurer Laureen Borden, representatives of Ramsey County, Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, were all named in the lawsuit.
“The state didn’t do its duties,” said Andy Cilek, Minnesota Voters Alliance president. “That’s why Don Ryan is a defendant. That’s why Mark Ritchie is a defendant, to protect our voting rights. ... We’re not personally after Don Ryan or Mark Ritchie or anyone. We can’t sue the state. That’s the only reason they are on there. They are just on there as a formality.
“It’s really meaningless because they don’t write the statutes, but you can’t sue the Legislature and you can’t sue the state.”
A representative of the secretary of state’s office reported it is reviewing the lawsuit but noted the office never comments on one. Ryan confirmed he and Borden were served and said they are in the process of retaining counsel.
Cilek, Minnesota Voters Alliance president, said the state’s practices permits ineligible voters to cast their ballots and have them counted. The alliance is one of the plaintiffs in the suit, filed in U.S. District Court.
“That’s the fundamental core of our argument,” Cilek said.
The election process went haywire in 1974 when Minnesota allowed same-day registration, Cilek said. Voters may be challenged on election day, but Cilek said challenge doesn’t stop their vote until the next election.
“It’s absurd, absolutely absurd,” Cilek said.
Individuals under guardianship, with voting rights removed, and felons, who may be paroled but have not regained voting rights, are among the ineligible voters, Cilek said.
“We’re saying the (state) Constitution requires the government to confirm eligibility before the person is allowed to have their vote counted,” Cilek said. Cilek is co-founder of the small, grass-roots group, which was founded in 2003. The Minnesota Freedom Council, Sondra Erickson, Montgomery Jensen, Ron Kaus, Jodi Lyn Nelson and Sharon Stene, guardian of James Stene are all listed as plaintiffs in the suit.
Crow Wing and Ramsey counties were named as having people cast ballots in the 2010 general election who were not eligible to vote. Four people, who had their voting rights eliminated with their guardianships, voted in the 2010 election in Crow Wing County.
Jim Stene, then a 35-year-old vulnerable adult, lived in the Clark Lake Home in Brainerd and voted in the 2010 election via absentee ballot on Oct. 29. 2010, along with other group home residents. Stene had his voting rights and was eligible to vote but his family reported they never expected him to do so. Jensen, a Crow Wing Township resident, filed a complaint with Ryan’s office on Nov. 1, 2010, after witnessing group home residents vote with assistance. Jensen filed a complaint with Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan’s office.
Ryan convened a grand jury in October of 2011 to look at the voting rights issues. The jury heard two-and-a-half days of testimony, 18 witnesses and saw more than 60 exhibits. Following deliberations, the jury did not come back with indictments. “I just hope it tightens up the system so what I witnessed doesn’t happen again,” Jensen said. “That’s all I ever wanted was some accountability in the system.”
The plaintiffs aren’t looking to end same-day voter registration, Cilek said. But, he said, they would like provisional ballots so votes aren’t counted until the voter is verified. “This is not a voter fraud case.”
Jensen said he was glad to see the lawsuit come forward. “We’re not trying to take anyone’s rights to votes,” Jensen said. “We are just asking they are verified.”
“Our problem is really with the statutes, it’s not that they are not following the statutes,” Cilek said. “We’re arguing the Legislature is who has to change the law.”
“As ordinary citizens we have researched and investigated the serious voting problems in Crow Wing County, we found that ineligible unconfirmed vulnerable adult voters had voted and their votes were counted before they were found to be in fact ineligible to register and vote,” Kaus stated in a news release. Kaus, president of the Minnesota Freedom Council, is a former Baxter resident who is now living in Duluth.
Kaus said his Feb. 12 check found the four ineligible votes in Crow Wing County still had an active status on the statewide voter registration system. The Crow Wing County auditor’s office checked the names of those voters Friday and reported they were listed as challenged.
According to the lawsuit, State Rep. Erickson, R-Princeton, ran for office in 2008 and lost by 89 votes in a recount. She won in the 2010 election. Stene has a home in Merrifield and is legal guardian of James Stene. Nelson, Maplewood, ran for school board and lost by one vote.
Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, former secretary of state, who was in Brainerd in February for a voting rights panel, currently has a bill in committee on reforms. Ryan submitted a letter of support for the bill.