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County board chair asks for legal opinion on potential 2020 election audit

Tuesday’s meeting featured a group about half the size of the approximately 75 people who appeared Oct. 26, with some of the same speakers approaching the microphone to reiterate their reasons for requesting the forensic audit of the election results and procedures in Crow Wing County.

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Chairman Steve Barrows speaks during a Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, Crow Wing County Board meeting. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
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The chairman of the Crow Wing County Board asked County Attorney Don Ryan to prepare a legal opinion on how commissioners might address a citizen request for a forensic audit of the 2020 election results.

Chairman Steve Barrows made the request Tuesday, Nov. 9, following the second meeting in two weeks beginning with public testimony casting doubt on the election procedures in the county during the 2020 election.

“What I would ask as the board chair, Don, is that you give us a legal opinion on what we’re able to do with regard to this issue, and that you would bring that forward to us when you have that answer for us, so that we are not doing anything illegal,” Barrows said. “I don’t think these people are asking us to do anything illegal, but I just want to make sure that we’re on legal ground when we look at the next step in the process.”

Accusations and questions

Tuesday’s meeting featured a group about half the size of the approximately 75 people who appeared Oct. 26 , with some of the same speakers approaching the microphone to reiterate their reasons for requesting the forensic audit of the election results and procedures in Crow Wing County.

RELATED: Crowd seeks 2020 election audit in Crow Wing County

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Jenkins Township resident Robin Sylvester told commissioners since the last meeting, she and others began knocking on the doors of voters to discuss how they can update their voter registration information. After interacting with what Sylvester described as a “small sample” of voters last weekend, she said they’ve already collected stories of voters reporting concerns. One example she offered was voters she said were registered at a certain address who’d never lived there.

“It saddens me to tell you that nearly 20% of the homes that answered the door actually had anomalies,” Sylvester said. “We’ll be working with the appropriate authorities to route those affidavits we are collecting.”

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Robin Sylvester tells Crow Wing County commissioners Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, she and others are conducting a door-to-door canvas of registered voters collecting stories of potential anomalies during the 2020 election. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Sylvester did not share information on the total number of voters approached thus far or who makes up the group of canvassers participating, but said she’s working to communicate with Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson, who oversees elections in the county, on any findings.

Former Crow Wing County Republican Party Chair and current Crow Wing Township Supervisor Doug Kern cited what he described as a delay in ballots arriving from a voting precinct on election night as another issue worth further examination.


"We have a problem here in the country with elections. We know that. We’re asking you guys as our representatives to find out."

— Mark Olson


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“Before the election was certified, I heard that it was the most smooth election we’ve ever had. It was not smooth,” Kern said. “ … Election night, there were issues that happened. Many issues, but one of the issues that, before the end of the night, we were right across the hall here and I was sitting there watching the votes. We got a call that two blocks from here at the township there, or the precinct was going to be bringing in the ballots. And we waited almost 45 minutes for them to come across two blocks. There’s issues that are there.”

Kern did not outline any of the other many issues he said occurred Tuesday. At the Oct. 26 meeting, he claimed he and his wife received multiple mail ballots despite not requesting them and reported when he voted in person, the tabulator took “almost a minute” to count his vote. In previous appearances, Erickson has told county commissioners mail or absentee ballots are only sent to those who fill out an application. Applications for these ballots, however, are sent by a number of outside groups including both political parties.

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Members of the public attend a Crow Wing County Board meeting Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, with most appearing to support a request for a forensic audit of the county's 2020 election results. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Residents Rick Felt and Mark Olson both insisted Dominion Voting Systems equipment used during the 2020 election, including in Crow Wing County, connected to the internet to allow a fraudulent scheme to change or remove votes. In an apparent reference to claims by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell associate Mary Fanning of a cyberattack on the company’s voting machines, Felt spoke of the machine’s IP addresses and “1 billion lines of fraudulent code” as proof.

“People are making statements, county staff, different people, are making statements that the machines aren’t hooked up to the internet. That’s absolutely false,” Olson said. “You guys check it out. … We have a problem here in the country with elections. We know that. We’re asking you guys as our representatives to find out.”


"Before the election was certified, I heard that it was the most smooth election we’ve ever had. It was not smooth."

— Doug Kern


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The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency roundly rejected Fanning’s claims, and Director Chris Krebs, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, described the theory as “nonsense.”

Olson also pointed to an Oct. 28 news conference hosted by Racine (Wisconsin) County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling, who alleged residents of a nursing home were illegally influenced by staff to vote after an illegal decision by the Wisconsin Elections Commission not to send special voting deputies into those facilities amid the pandemic. Olson described the timing of this news conference — two days after the Dispatch cited a recent nonpartisan audit conducted in Wisconsin in reporting on the previous county board meeting as an example of a number of reviews across the country finding no evidence of widespread voter fraud — as “God’s providence.”

The state’s Attorney General Josh Kaul declined to open an investigation into Schmaling’s claims and five members of the commission, both Democrats and Republicans, responded that they acted within the law and went to extra effort to prevent disenfranchisement. Criminal charges recommended by Schmaling against those elections officials have not been pursued by the Racine County Attorney’s Office as of Tuesday.

Following Tuesday’s meeting, elections head Erickson addressed specific claims of alleged questionable activity in Crow Wing County in an interview.

Internet connectivity

Crow Wing County Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson
Crow Wing County Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson

Erickson asserted once again that none of the county’s Dominion tabulators, which count votes cast on paper ballots completed by voters, were ever connected to the internet, nor was the Election Systems & Software equipment in use prior to 2018. State law prohibits any connectivity — wired or wireless — beyond wired connections within a polling place, and Erickson noted Crow Wing County is more restrictive than the law by not connecting the machines to anything at all.

This starts with the programming itself for the machines, which is provided to the county by a vendor. That program is not transported online, but is instead placed on a physical storage device and delivered via courier to preserve the chain of custody. The programming is later tested and verified before use by election judges of both major political parties, including during an event any members of the public can attend and watch.


"We have always required those judges to bring all of their materials directly to the (Crow Wing County Historic) Courthouse on election night, so that we were not dealing with any type of connectivity with that equipment."

— Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson


After the polls close and a record of a given precinct’s election results is printed, state law does allow the transmission of vote tallies to a central reporting location via telephone, modem, internet or other electronic connection. Again, Erickson noted Crow Wing County is more restrictive than state law on this matter.

“We have always required those judges to bring all of their materials directly to the (Crow Wing County Historic) Courthouse on election night, so that we were not dealing with any type of connectivity with that equipment,” Erickson said. “We actually seal all the access panels on our machines during the public test, so that the ports that somebody could plug into or connect or whatever the case may be are not even accessible in the polling place on Election Day.

“The election judges who do the public test sign off on the seal numbers that are on those machines at the time when they do the public test, and then all election judges in the polling places have to verify that those seals match when they start the precinct day and match at the end of the precinct day.”

Erickson also addressed a concern relayed at the previous board meeting by a Baxter woman who served as an election judge during last year’s election. The woman described an instance when two hours into Election Day, an elections worker arrived at her precinct and inserted a flash drive into the iPad used for the electronic poll book. She questioned the purpose of the action and said she’d never seen it done before.


"So they are verifying four steps to make sure that there are no more or no less than the number of voters who actually came through those doors."

— Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson


This action, Erickson said, is actually required by state law and is a measure to prevent voters from casting more than one ballot. The flash drive contained a text file with the names of any voters from whom the county received a mail or absentee ballot during the morning mail delivery. Checking against the poll books ensures ballots received in the mail from those who’ve already voted in a polling place are not counted, and it also informs election judges of those who’ve voted by mail, should they attempt to vote in person that day.

Erickson noted state law allows these electronic poll book updates to be completed over the internet, but Crow Wing County again chooses the more restrictive path.

“We only allow for a manual entry or a file update, which is what that thumb drive into the poll book was,” she said. “ … In some cases, we give a list for the election judges to update those manually. If it’s a larger precinct, like some of our Baxter or Brainerd precincts that would have a significant number of absentee records, we do have that thumb drive update that is available for that particular purpose.”

From precinct to courthouse

As for Kern’s characterization of a 45-minute delay in the delivery of sealed ballots from a precinct, Erickson said she couldn’t speak to the specifics of his claim because it was unclear to which precinct he referred. There are no precinct locations within two blocks of the historic courthouse.

Generally speaking, Erickson said election judges who arrive with ballots receive a number and may have to wait in line behind judges from other precincts who arrived earlier. A log maintained at the courthouse records the check-in time of each precinct.

Beyond the sealed ballots, election judges also return any remaining blank ballots, tabulating equipment, electronic poll books, certification forms and materials and all other supplies provided to the polling location by the county. With the safeguards in place, it’s impossible for an election judge to alter results or otherwise tamper with ballots while going undetected, Erickson explained.

“The ballots are sealed at the polling place by election judges. … Every judge who is in that polling place has to sign off on the summary result tapes, the summary statements at the end of the night, which lists the seals that have been placed on the ballot materials,” Erickson said. “Those are verified when they get back here. The seal numbers that are on the boxes and on the materials are verified against what the election judges have signed off on to make sure that that chain of custody has been maintained, and that there has been no changes or tampering or anything with that.”

Further, election judges are tasked with ensuring the number of people listed as having voted in the electronic poll book matches the number of receipts used by voters to exchange for a ballot, the number of voted ballots and the number of votes cast, according to the tabulator.

“So they are verifying four steps to make sure that there are no more or no less than the number of voters who actually came through those doors,” she said.

After election night, results are further verified as part of the legally required audit completed after every election. This audit consists of a random drawing of two precincts in the county, the ballots from which are then hand-counted by election judges of both major political parties at a public meeting. All the races on those ballots must match the machine-counted figures. In 2020, those hand counts in Crow Wing resulted in a perfect match, Erickson said. If they hadn’t, the law requires drawing additional precincts and if there’s a second failure, the entire county must be recounted. That’s never happened in the county, she said.

Canvassing

Erickson said she’s spoken with Sylvester about the door-to-door canvassing underway and is willing to look into any concerns brought forward through that exercise. The group is using a list of the county’s registered voters it recently acquired from the Minnesota Secretary of State, which Erickson cautioned will not be the same as it was on Election Day 2020. This could lead to some discrepancies, she noted, because a number of people have likely since moved, died, were convicted of a felony or had voting rights restored after their probation ended.

“Minnesota’s voter registration system updates on a continuous basis. We get information almost on a daily basis when we need to make updates to the voter registration system,” she said. “ … So the list of what they are working with would not be a complete and comprehensive list as of Nov. 3, 2020, because that has already been changed. … That’s why we are working on a process with them, so that we can make sure that any anomalies that they have identified can be researched by our office and we can go through those proper channels to make sure that we can resolve what some of those situations are.”

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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