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Crow Wing County mulls tougher post-election review practices

The conversation comes after nearly a year of public comments during meetings raising a variety of concerns with the elections system, inspired by unproven claims of election fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Deborah Erickson gestures as she speaks while seated at a table in the Crow Wing County Boardroom.
Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson explains how the post-election review process works during the Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022, Crow Wing County committee of the whole meeting.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — The Crow Wing County Board is expected to consider stricter post-election audit requirements this November than required by state law.

After listening to a presentation from Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson, commissioners discussed during the Tuesday, Aug. 16, committee of the whole meeting the possibility of a resolution to double the number of precincts counted by hand after the general election.

The conversation comes after nearly a year of public comments during meetings raising a variety of concerns with the elections system, inspired by unproven claims of 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 entirely in favor of hand counting alone. Several regular attendees were present Tuesday.

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Erickson outlined state statutes dictating how the results of general elections are reviewed at the county level. In counties with fewer than 50,000 registered voters — which includes Crow Wing at 45,543 as of primary election day — officials 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.

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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. Erickson noted the second and third steps have never been required in Crow Wing, given the 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.

“This audit is open to the public for observation, just like our public test process is open to the public,” Erickson said. “The audit has always been open to view for the public, and we have had folks attend in the past for the post-election audit.”

Commissioner Paul Koering asked Erickson whether Crow Wing County could choose to double-check more than the number of precincts required by state law. Erickson said because the statute states the review requires “at least” two precincts, it’s the County Board’s prerogative to review more than two.

Commissioner Bill Brekken praised Erickson for her detailed summation of the checks and balances already in place, noting he understood why she garners recognition as one of the top election officials in the state. He then said he wants to see an end to the almost weekly comments raising doubts about past and future elections and hopes a resolution beefing up the audit process will satisfy those with concerns.

“I do believe this election issue has become a political platform,” Brekken said. “ … I think it’s time to put the election issue to bed and time to recognize support for election judges and for our staff that are really working hard to do a fair and honest election. And then I think that we go with that.

Commissioner Paul Koering looks at Commissioner Bill Brekken while he speaks
Crow Wing County Commissioner Bill Brekken, left, gives his reasons for seeking a resolution to increase the number of voting precincts reviewed after the upcoming general election as Commissioner Paul Koering listens during the Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022, committee of the whole meeting.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“So I think what our encouragement needs to be is we need to encourage people to get out and vote. That’s the thing that really makes that difference, because I think the checks and balances are there so we can have an accurate election.”

Brekken concluded his comments by requesting a resolution doubling the number of precincts reviewed be added to the agenda for the board’s Aug. 23 regular meeting. Commissioners do not make decisions during the committee of the whole meeting, which is intended for deeper discussion and staff direction from the board.

Koering asked Erickson to provide further information on cast vote records, which he said he’s seen referenced in data requests and other emails from those pushing for election changes. Those requests sought to inspect the cast vote record data in search of anomalies, such as apparent “ballot dumping.” Koering suggested including something related to these records in the same resolution.

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Cast vote records, Erickson explained, generally refer to the receipt an individual voter receives after casting a ballot through direct recording electronic voting systems, more commonly referred to as touchscreen voting. The receipt summarizes the choices the voter made in each race. Minnesota does not use these systems, instead allowing only optical scan voting equipment coupled with paper ballots.

Optical scanners have the ability to produce a report of votes cast, although Erickson said state law considers the paper ballot itself the official record, given a receipt would recreate the exact same choices. Crow Wing County has the ability to create this report, she said, although privacy concerns are an issue.

“What we don’t know yet and what we need to do some more research on is whether or not it actually is able to tie back immediately to the voter to be able to know how someone voted,” Erickson said. “Because if you have a list of every action that is taken on a particular machine, if I know that I was voter No. 7 in the polling place, I’m going to be able to see the seventh ballot cast is my vote. But I’m also going to be able to know the person ahead of me in line was voter No. 6, I can see how they voted. And the person behind me was voter No. 8, and I can see how they voted.”

Erickson said she’s seeking information on whether the report could be randomized to protect the secrecy of voters’ ballots.

“I don’t think any of us want that. I think that could be a recipe for disaster myself,” Koering said of revealing people’s votes. “I’d like to have that cast vote record, if it’s randomized — have that report, because people have been asking for that.”

Commissioner Paul Koering gestures with his hands as he speaks during a meeting
Commissioner Paul Koering, left, speaks during a discussion on the post-election review process Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022, at the Crow Wing County committee of the whole meeting as Chairman Doug Houge looks on.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Commissioner Steve Barrows said he wasn’t convinced either of these actions would satisfy the citizen group.

“I’m not sure that this resolution addresses the concern of this group, which is the machines,” Barrows said. “And I’m not asking them to stand up and answer that question. I’m not sure what we’re attempting to do is going to resolve this issue. I’ll say no more at this point.”

Koering said a countywide hand count for all races wasn’t feasible.

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“I don’t know if we have enough people, we don’t have enough time to hand count if there’s 45,000 votes. You don’t just go and count all the people on here, it’s every race,” Koering said.

Erickson said a general election may include 35-40 or more races on a particular ballot.

“If you have 40-50 races on the ballot, you are touching a ballot 40 to 50 times when you are doing a hand count, because you count each race, you make a pile for each candidate, you count each pile and then you double count each pile,” Erickson said. “ … There is more error rate with a hand count when you have that type of a process than there is with an optical scanner.”

Chairman Doug Houge asked how much more it would cost to conduct a hand count. Erickson said she would need to do the math, but it would be a significant increase with the need for more people and a lot more hours. It would take multiple days, she said. The costs of elections are covered entirely by property tax levy dollars.

After noticing an audience member shaking his head a number of times during board discussion, Houge asked him to step to the mic and explain his views on cast vote records.

Brainerd resident Mark Olson speaks into a microphone
Brainerd resident Mark Olson explains why he believes a cast vote record is necessary during the Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022, Crow Wing County committee of the whole meeting.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“We would prefer, as was said, that the machines would be gone,” said Mark Olson, a Brainerd resident and frequent meeting attendee. “But we aren’t going to get that, we understand that. But to turn the switch on (to produce a cast vote record) is a huge help. It’s huge.

“ … Do we think there was trouble in 2020? Yes. No question, and it should be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. But — in Crow Wing County? Probably not. Probably not. We’ve run a nice, I think, a good county. But we were just saying, OK, let’s be the gold standard of Minnesota. And that’s what we were trying to encourage you guys to do.”

County Administrator Tim Houle noted if the county is able to produce a cast vote record, it would be a public document, which he said would appear to accomplish the goals of the group. Individual ballots — although considered the official record of votes by the state — are not public.

“They would like to be able to inspect the granular level detail, as long as it can be randomized so that we don’t identify anybody. There’s no harm in that,” Houle said. “And so it does give them something they don’t have today, and I think it probably would get to the root of what the issue is — at least I hope so.”

Erickson said multiple data requests for cast vote records submitted by the citizen group were “cut and paste” requests from different states referencing language in those state’s laws. The fact each state conducts elections independently is another layer of election security, she said, and also means laws in one state do not apply in another.

Commissioners are expected to vote on a resolution making changes to the post-election review at their Aug. 23 meeting.

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

Related Topics: CROW WING COUNTYCROW WING COUNTY BOARDGOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
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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