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Simon: Crow Wing County elections a ‘top-notch operation’

The state’s chief elections administrator shared his views on audits, Minnesota’s election system and what he expects headed into the midterm elections during an interview Tuesday, Jan. 11.

Voters wait in line outside in 2020.
Wrapping around the south and east side of the Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, early voters trickle into the east door of the building.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

BRAINERD — While not doubting the sincerity of many of those questioning the 2020 election, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said conducting more audits of an already well-vetted and accurate process is not warranted.

“Given this process and how important it is, we can’t launch into this kind of inquiry of unspecified misconduct based on a hunch, or a vibe, or a gut feeling. We just can't do that,” Simon said Tuesday, Jan. 11. “And I don’t think people should expect government to do that, and we just simply can’t do that at this late day. It’s not proper. And it’s not called for in this instance.”

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon says on Wednesday, May 16, 2018, that he wants lawmakers to approve him spending $1.5 million of federal funds to improve voter database security. Don Davis / Forum News Service
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, shown in this 2018 photo, lauded election administration in Crow Wing County in an interview Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022.
Don Davis / Forum News Service file photo

The state’s chief elections administrator shared his views on audits, Minnesota’s election system and what he expects headed into the midterm elections during an interview conducted via video conferencing. He called the continued disinformation about the 2020 election “demonstrably wrong.” Simon’s remarks come following a Jan. 4 resolution passed 4-1 by the Crow Wing County Board , requesting the secretary of state conduct a “full forensic audit of the election materials and data of the 2020 election in Crow Wing County.”

The board’s request comes after a petition and months of public forum comments from a group of citizens expressing wide-ranging opinions about potential fraud or mishandling of the presidential election, which took place more than 14 months ago. The petition requested the board oversee an audit, but Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan said it did not possess that authority in his legal opinion presented in late December.

“There are some people out there — political actors, who for political reasons, sometimes financial reasons, sometimes both — are invested in spreading disinformation, false things about our elections and how they performed and how they withstood the stresses of 2020,” Simon said. “But I will go back to the fact that in Minnesota, the election was fundamentally fair, accurate, honest and secure, and verifiably so.

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Crow Wing County Board during a meeting.
Crow Wing County commissioners Doug Houge, left, Steve Barrows, Rosemary Franzen along with Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan listen to speakers from the gallery during the open forum portion of the meeting Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. The board went on to vote 4-1 to request a forensic audit of the 2020 election in the county from the Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

“And so it’s anyone’s right to voice concerns or misgivings. But it’s also my obligation to try to answer those in a factual, straightforward way. And that’s what I’m trying to do, and preserve the integrity of a process, which by the way, enjoys a lot of public confidence.”

Simon — who noted he had yet to receive a formal request from the County Board — said as a former DFL state legislator, he understands commissioners’ desires to do right by constituents making a request. He also recognized the balance they tried to strike in the resolution by reiterating their own confidence in the county’s election administration.

“I would say, though, that the language of the resolution is, as I’ve said elsewhere, really impossibly broad,” Simon said. “ … I have no idea what that means. All election materials and data? Ballots, machines, source code, all data? I mean, it’s pretty broad and sweeping.”

It's not proper. And it's not called for.
Steve Simon, Minnesota secretary of state

Simon said while this request would be troubling anywhere in the state, he finds it particularly so in Crow Wing County, given the leadership of Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson. Simon called Erickson “one of the very best in the business.”

“This person happens to be a go-to person — not just in Minnesota, but in some national circles,” Simon said. “ … I really mean it when I say, this is a top-notch person and a top-notch operation. So I mean it as a gesture of respect when I say that Crow Wing County should be very proud of the integrity of its elections. They are done well and thoroughly and honestly and ethically.

“And so those who believe that they have evidence of misconduct or believe that they have evidence of, you know, unlawful behavior — at this point, the best avenue is law enforcement.”

Despite repeated claims of alleged irregularities revealed through a door-to-door foot canvas led by some in the group petitioning for the forensic audit, no signed affidavits describing the issues have thus far been submitted to county officials for review, according to Erickson.

Deborah Erickson
Crow Wing County Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson discusses absentee and mail balloting Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, at the Crow Wing County committee of the whole meeting.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

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On the local level

Minnesotans doubting the 2020 election, although vocal, are not representative of the overall sentiment of the state’s residents, Simon said. And one indicator of that confidence in the state’s election system for Simon is voter turnout.

“Minnesota, for the third time in a row in 2020, was No. 1 in the country in voter participation. We were at nearly 80%, … the highest in Minnesota since 1956. And turnout, I should point out, that benefited both parties. Red turnout was up, blue turnout was up. Republicans can claim great victories in Minnesota in 2020, Democrats can claim great victories in Minnesota in 2020,” Simon said. “So my point is, I don’t think people in Minnesota would vote in such huge numbers, time after time after time, unless they agreed, generally speaking, that our election system was honest and fair and secure.”

Simon said one of the strengths of the election system in the United States is the multiple layers of decentralization, in which decisions are made on hyperlocal levels and ultimately, elections are run by precinct officials within cities and townships. There are also a number of audits and security checks already enshrined in state law to check the accuracy of elections.

Crow Wing County should be very proud of the integrity of its elections.
Steve Simon, Minnesota secretary of state

Contrary to the beliefs of some, the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office has little to do with directly conducting elections. Instead, the office certifies election equipment, administers the Statewide Voter Registration System, provides technical assistance to local election officials and monitors compliance of state election laws.
County elections officials oversee more duties: processing voter registration applications, setting ballot layouts and printing, applying or removing challenges to voter records, purchasing and maintaining supplies and election equipment, programming and testing voting equipment, issuing absentee ballots, training and certifying local election officials and election judges, compiling election results and conducting post-election audits.

City, township and school district officials within counties set precinct boundaries and secure polling locations as well as hire election judges assigned to those precincts. Election judges must be balanced by political party in every setting in which they operate.

Audits, safeguards part of election process

In addition to decentralization, a number of other protections and processes are in place to ensure the integrity of elections, Simon said. Long before Election Day, voting equipment is tested and certified by labs accredited by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission as well as detailed testing by the secretary of state’s office.

In Crow Wing County, the Dominion Voting Systems tabulators in use were certified federally in 2015 and received state certification in 2016, before they were purchased for use in county elections in 2018. According to Erickson, certification is not required every year — only when changes to firmware or hardware occur. Neither of these changes has occurred since those machines have been in use in Crow Wing.

110420.N.BD.ElectionDay9.jpg
Janie Stephens waits near her dad, Jim, as he requests his ballot from election judge Kay Greenwalt Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, at Baxter City Hall. The council chamber at the city hall was arranged so everyone could safely distance while voting on Election Day.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

Local elections officials are required to conduct preliminary testing on equipment before each election as well. Pre-marked ballots — including some marked in ways designed to potentially cause problematic results — are fed into tabulators as part of this testing process and the machine’s totals are compared with predetermined results. Testing of the machinery is then opened to the public as part of a public accuracy test. Anyone can attend this test and even participate by marking ballots.

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A number of security measures are in place on Election Day to ensure the accuracy of vote counts, monitored and signed off on by election judges of all major political parties. Ballots are sealed at the polling place and every election judge there must sign off on summary results, which lists the seal numbers. Election judges must also ensure 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.

... The election was fundamentally fair, accurate, honest and secure, and verifiably so.
Steve Simon, Minnesota secretary of state

After Election Day, the county canvassing board oversees a random drawing of two precincts where the results of ballot tabulators are audited. Results for those precincts are counted by hand and compared to the machine-counted results.
In 2020, those hand counts in Crow Wing resulted in a perfect match, Erickson previously reported. If they hadn’t, the law requires randomly drawing additional precincts and if there’s a second failure, the entire county must be recounted. That’s never happened in Crow Wing County. A spreadsheet of the results from each county’s 2020 post-election review is available on the secretary of state’s website at bit.ly/3A1m8Aw .

Furthermore, the state canvassing board also audits results by randomly selecting at least four precincts in each congressional district for review. To view the state canvassing board certificate and documentation, visit bit.ly/3Fs4gjG .

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

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