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Crow Wing County Board agrees to more strenuous post-election review

The decision comes after nearly a year of public comments from a citizen group raising a variety of concerns with the elections system, inspired by false claims of widespread election fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Crow Wing County commissioners sit at the front of the boardroom
Commissioners Doug Houge, left, Steve Barrows and Rosemary Franzen during the Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, Crow Wing County Board meeting.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — The post-election review process in Crow Wing County this November will include hand counting results in twice as many precincts as required by state law.

In a 4-1 vote, county commissioners Tuesday, Aug. 23, agreed to increase the number of randomly selected precincts in which state and federal races are reviewed after the general election from the state law-required two to four. The resolution also compelled cast vote records — or records of votes cast for candidates on each paper ballot fed through optical scanner voting machines on Election Day — to be produced as public record.

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The decision comes after nearly a year of public comments from a citizen group raising a variety of concerns with the elections system, inspired by false claims of widespread election fraud in the 2020 presidential election. As of late, this commentary shifted toward a push for Crow Wing County to abandon its Dominion Voting Systems electronic voting equipment in favor of hand counting alone. A nearly full gallery Tuesday included several people who’ve regularly attended the board meetings on this issue.

Commissioner Rosemary Franzen reiterated the resolution does not reflect commissioners’ own concerns about the integrity of the election system but instead is an attempt to assuage the skepticism of constituents.

“As county commissioners, we've all stated that we don't have any concerns about election integrity,” Franzen said. “But we have a lot of concerned citizens and I want to make sure that everybody's concerns are met.”

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Commissioner Steve Barrows, the lone vote against the resolution, said he supports producing the cast vote record, or CVR, but disagrees with the need to count more precincts in the state-prescribed review process.

“I think the elections in our county are second to none. The judges, the staff, the volunteers that put on our elections — and believe me, I have many years of watching these — have never been questioned like they have this year for unknown reasons for me,” Barrows said. “There are no facts backing up the fact that the Crow Wing County election in 2020 was rife with fraud. None. Zero. Therefore, I cannot support adding two more precinct/townships to the requirement that the state already requires of us.”

By state law, counties with fewer than 50,000 registered voters — which includes Crow Wing at 45,543 as of primary election day — must hand count certain races in two randomly selected voting precincts. Precincts are drawn during the post-general election meeting of the county canvassing board, and one of these precincts must have more than 150 votes cast. Once precincts are selected for review, the municipalities in which the precincts are located appoint election judges representing different political parties to conduct the hand count.

People applaud while seated in rows of benches in the Crow Wing County Boardroom
Some members of the audience applaud following comments from Crow Wing County Commissioner Rosemary Franzen during the Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, County Board meeting. The board agreed to tougher post-election review requirements than state law demands.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

If these hand counts vary by more than two to three votes — based on precinct size — from the machine counts, additional hand counting is required. If this second step also reveals discrepancies, every precinct in the county must be reviewed. The second and third steps have never been required in Crow Wing, given the 100% accuracy of the initial reviews.

This year’s post-election review in Crow Wing County will take place 10 a.m. Nov. 21 in meeting rooms 1 and 2 at the Land Services Building, 322 Laurel St., Brainerd.

City administrator, League of Women Voters comment

County Administrator Tim Houle opened the discussion Tuesday by reporting written comments received from Breezy Point City Administrator David Chanski and the League of Women Voters of Minnesota.

Chanski wrote he believed increasing the number of hand-counted precincts would do nothing to improve upon the fair and accurate elections process in Crow Wing County. He noted since the municipalities selected for review are responsible for paying election judges to conduct the hand count, the resolution amounted to an unfunded mandate by the county and would increase tax dollars spent on the election.

“Increasing the number of precincts that must conduct a hand count not only further cements a narrative that there is cause to distrust our election process but is also a direct slap in the face to all city clerks and election judges who devote numerous hours to ensure fair, effective, and accurate elections,” Chanski wrote.

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“ … Incurring additional costs on municipalities, potentially sowing further distrust in our election process, risking the further demoralization of election judges, and making it more difficult to recruit new election judges with no (demonstrable) benefit to our election process is not worth attempting to appease a minor segment of our community.”

Commissioner Paul Koering said he clarified with Chanski these statements were his own position, not an official position of the Breezy Point City Council.

Becky LaPlante, president of the League of Women Voters Brainerd Lakes Area, read a memo written on behalf of both the statewide organization and the local chapter. The memo noted the organization’s hundred-year history of witnessing the state’s elections, including the work of nonpartisan officials and local election judges from all major parties to conduct and verify elections using the safeguards already in place. Misinformation about the 2020 election is undermining voter confidence and fueling dangerous hostility toward election officials, the letter stated.

Becky LaPlante gestures while speaking at a microphone
Becky LaPlante, League of Women Voters Brainerd Lakes Area president, reads a memo from the state organization and local chapter expressing their views on the Crow Wing County Board resolution under consideration Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, about post-election reviews.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“We thank you today for warding off rumors and unfounded claims, and instead affirming the strong evidence that you have at your disposal from across the political spectrum that show that our Crow Wing County elections were, and remain, fair and accurate,” LaPlante read. “Indeed, the most powerful evidence of all rests in your own post-election audits, which demonstrate Crow Wing County’s 100% accuracy in the 2020 elections.

“We support the right of citizens to come before you and share their point of view and ask reasonable questions. We expect you as government officials who represent all constituents to remain committed to proven facts and sources, rather than hunches, misinformation and drama about our elections.”

Citizen group weighs in

A number of people in the audience Tuesday criticized the resolution for not going far enough — particularly the board’s desire to randomize the CVR in an effort to protect ballot secrecy. Several referenced MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s “Moment of Truth Summit,” which occurred last weekend in Springfield, Missouri, and purported to take “a further deep dive into the corruption of the 2020 election.”

Sonia Slack, a regular commenter on the election issue, presented line graphs using 2020 CVR data in other states she said pointed to strange happenings.

“It can't be from random voters casting their ballots. This shows manipulation of results,” Slack said. “The fact that you’re entertaining manipulating the CVR data will invite conspiracy theories and is against the scientific and investigative principles.”

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Tony Bauer, another regular attendee, offered the example of a bank error by comparison. He said a bank would provide a transaction list in painstaking detail, not something randomized.

“I urge you to turn on the cast vote record and please stop hiding behind the pretenses of protecting integrity when integrity itself is being intentionally retarded by not using it,” Bauer said.

Carol Ottoson said the randomization would take away the ability to find patterns of possible manipulation.

“I’m not saying any of us are involved in manipulation of votes, but I hope you would realize with machines it can happen right under our noses and we would never even suspect a thing,” Ottoson said.

Erik Van Mechelen of Minneapolis, a former Republican secretary of state candidate who lost the Aug. 9 primary to Kim Crockett, questioned the usefulness of the post-election review in ensuring integrity.

“We check a sampling of precincts and we look at a few of the races,” Van Mechelen said. “Therefore, you're actually looking at less than 1% of the ovals against the hand tally in that post-election review. What about the other 99% plus? That’s what the CVR can provide you immediately.”

Some speakers took issue with the final line of the resolution under consideration, which stated the Crow Wing County Board would not take up the issue again before the 2022 election.

“Why is that part of your resolution?” asked Rachel Kohn. “New data and information is discovered and shared every day. Court cases are filed every day. No matter what happens between now and Election Day, you will close your ears? I am a citizen of this county and if I have information that I think will help you do your job that you've been elected to do, I expect to be able to come here and give you that information.”

Jeremy Pekula, a candidate for County Board in neighboring Morrison County, said the resolution failed to address any of the group’s concerns.

“I find it disgracefully absurd that it’s been suggested that this proposed resolution should put an end to all open discussion regarding election transparency at these meetings,” Pekula said. “It’s genuinely reprehensible for any county commissioner to attempt to silence the concerns of the very people they were elected to serve.”

Commissioners, staff respond

Following the conclusion of public comments, Barrows listed several previous requests or apparent anomalies from people associated with the citizen group over the course of 11 months. He said despite the county taking action to satisfy those concerns, the group continues to shift its focus and make new demands.

“We constantly are reminded as a board to follow the law. We are required to do so,” Barrows said. “I’ve listened to this group for many months and what I understand is that if we do four, you’ll still think we should do all of them. That issue will not be resolved from this resolution today, from my perspective.”

Franzen said a full hand count across the entire county would not happen, but she agreed with producing the CVR. She handed a copy of the resolution to Houle with highlights indicating sentences she believed should be removed: reference to the report’s randomization and the line stating the board would not take up the issue again.

Deborah Erickson speaks at a podium in the Crow Wing County Boardroom
Crow Wing County Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson addresses the issue of cast vote records Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, during the County Board meeting. Commissioners voted to produce a cast vote record report of the 2022 general election.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson, who runs the county’s elections, said producing a CVR without randomization would not be possible and altering the resolution to strip out that requirement wouldn’t change that. Randomization occurs automatically in the reports, she said, in response to the Voluntary Voting Systems Guidelines adopted by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Any company wishing to sell voting machines in the United States must review these guidelines before seeking certification, Erickson said.

Among the principles in the guidelines is to maintain ballot secrecy with specific reference to CVRs not including any information identifying a voter. Totals also must be aggregated in a manner making it impossible to recreate the order in which ballots were cast.

Barrows asked Franzen to clarify why she wanted to drop the sentence about the board’s intentions moving forward, adding the board is proposing to react to their requests now and he doesn’t foresee anything happening that would require further board action.

“I don’t agree with you at all, with that statement. I was elected by the people to listen to the people,” Franzen said to applause.

“Thank you for that, I appreciate it, and for 11 months, we’ve all listened to these people,” Barrows replied.

“And I will continue to listen until people quit talking,” Franzen continued to another round of applause.

The resolution would not have placed any limits on who speaks or what they speak about during open forum in upcoming meetings, but rather addressed only the board’s intentions to not take additional action.

Koering made the motion for the resolution with Franzen’s edits, and Franzen seconded. The motion passed with Koering, Franzen, Commissioner Bill Brekken and Chairman Doug Houge in support.

Erik Van Mechelen, failed Minnesota secretary of state candidate, stands and gestures while speaking.
Erik Van Mechelen, former Republican candidate for Minnesota secretary of state who lost in the Aug. 9 primary election, stands to speak from the audience during the Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, Crow Wing County Board meeting. The board passed a resolution to strengthen post-election review requirements and Van Mechelen said the resolution did nothing to increase transparency in his view.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

After the motion passed, Van Mechelen interjected from the audience to say the board should order CVRs for the 2020 election and the Aug. 9 primary election, too. Houle said Van Mechelen was out of order to speak from the audience without being recognized by the chair. Van Mechelen asked if he could speak, but Houge said the matter was done.

Some in the audience applauded. Van Mechelen once again interjected: “The resolution does exactly nothing for transparency of the election.”

The board moved on to the next agenda item — broadband internet — as the majority of people in the room left.

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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