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Simon says no to Crow Wing audit request

Local elections officials are required to conduct preliminary testing on equipment before each election. 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.

Close up of man speaking
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon denied a Crow Wing County Board request to conduct a forensic audit of the 2020 election in the county in a Jan. 31 letter to commissioners.
Don Davis / Forum News Service

BRAINERD — A County Board request of the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office to conduct a forensic audit of the 2020 election will not be fulfilled.

In a Jan. 31 letter to the Crow Wing County Board, Secretary of State Steve Simon made official what he’d already voiced in interviews with the Dispatch and other media outlets: he will not direct his office to “engage in a vague and impossibly broad search for unspecified misconduct … based on anyone’s gut feeling, hunch or belief — no matter how sincerely held.”

Steve Simon
Steve Simon

“Consistent with Minnesota law, Crow Wing County administrators already engaged in a thorough post-election audit and a post-election review after the 2020 general election — with results showing no irregularities and no cause to suspect misconduct,” Simon’s letter stated. “Our office has reviewed their work and has found it to be professional, legal, and precise. There is no legitimate reason to second-guess the integrity of the 2020 election in Crow Wing County.”

Simon’s letter comes 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 was in response to 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 15 months ago. The petition requested the board oversee an audit, but Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan said county government did not possess that authority in his legal opinion presented in late December.

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Simon’s letter indicated the secretary of state’s office is also not the proper venue for such a request, particularly after this many months past the certification of the election results.

“For those who claim to have actual evidence of potential wrongdoing, the proper place to share that evidence is a law enforcement agency,” the state’s top elections administrator wrote.

Deborah Erickson, Crow Wing County administrative services director, confirmed Tuesday reviews of alleged evidence thus far presented by the group have shown no indication of fraud or mishandling.

‘We’re not going to go away’

A handful of activists who have regularly attended County Board meetings since October 2021 sat in the gallery again during the Tuesday, Feb. 8, meeting. Among them was Doug Kern, the former chair of the Crow Wing County Republican Party and current Crow Wing Township supervisor. Kern, who has repeatedly shared his belief that state law grants county officials authority to conduct the forensic audit despite Ryan’s opinion, implored commissioners to “step up to the plate.”

Man speaks at podium
Doug Kern, former Crow Wing County Republican Party chair and current Crow Wing Township supervisor, explains his reasons for expecting further action from the Crow Wing County Board on a forensic audit request of the 2020 election during a Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, meeting.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“I know we’ve never seen such a time as 2020 … and we don’t want a repeat of that,” Kern said. “ … If the system is broken, we need to fix it. And we’re counting on you guys.”

Chairman Doug Houge told Kern the County Board listened to the citizens with election concerns and took action based on the advice of the county attorney.

I will not vote for anything that goes against the law.
Paul Koering, Crow Wing County commissioner

“We’ve moved this request to the secretary of state, who has declined that request. So we — I guess we’re satisfied with the request for the forensic audit,” Houge said. “We have nothing to hide in the deal, that’s why we moved it forward to the secretary of state and he spoke.”

Commissioners proceeded with the rest of the brief meeting agenda before Houge allowed Kern to approach the microphone again.

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DougHougeMug.png
Doug Houge

“With the things that were presented, there were concerns, there were issues that we have. And we’re not going to go away with those. Somehow, someway, we’re going to fix 2022, so it doesn’t happen again,” Kern said. “Thank you for acknowledging it, that it went to (the secretary of state) and came back. I guess we were expecting a little bit more, but it is what it is.”

Houge repeated the commissioners would follow the advice of the county attorney and advised Kern to direct his specific questions on what Simon reviewed in making this decision to the state official.

County Administrator Tim Houle added he’d be willing to help Kern frame a request for changes in election law to the state Legislature.

Commissioner Paul Koering, participating in the meeting virtually from Florida, said he doesn’t want to let Kern down as his county commissioner but didn’t understand what Kern wanted the board to do.

Somehow, someway, we’re going to fix 2022, so it doesn’t happen again.
Doug Kern, election activist

“I will not vote for anything that goes against the law. I can’t do that. And as a township officer, you can’t vote against anything or do anything that’s contrary to state statute,” Koering said.

Kern repeated his interpretation of state law and asked where constituents should take issues they feel aren’t being addressed.

Paul Koering.JPG
Paul Koering

“If it’s Sheriff (Scott) Goddard, we’ll go to him and talk to him about it, but I don’t think it is, I think it’s Steve Simon. I think it’s you county commissioners and Steve Simon that we deal with, that we talk to about our concerns and our issues, and when they’re brushed aside, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be,” Kern said.

Koering explained his understanding of the board’s responsibilities related to elections and said he was not trying to brush anything aside.

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“You know what I feel like is, I feel like you’ve already said that I’m guilty and I have to somehow prove to you that I’m innocent,” Koering said.

“It actually feels the other way around,” Kern responded, “that we don’t know what we’re talking about. … We want to know that these machines are actually going to do their job in 2022.”

Commissioners Rosemary Franzen, Bill Brekken and Steve Barrows did not speak on the issue during Tuesday’s meeting.

Commissioners respond

After adjournment, Franzen — who made the original motion to request the audit of Simon’s office — said she agreed with Houge’s comments but added she wanted more from the secretary of state.

“I wish he would have done more, but he chose not to. That’s just the way it is,” Franzen said.

Commissioner Rosemary Franzen
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen

Asked to elaborate on what she believed Simon should have done, Franzen declined to provide further comment.

Reached by phone, Brekken and Barrows both encouraged those with concerns about the integrity of the Dominion Voting Systems tabulators in use in Crow Wing County to attend the public test events before the primary and general elections later this year.

Local elections officials are required to conduct preliminary testing on equipment before each election. 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 machines’ 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.

Bill Brekken
Bill Brekken
Contributed

“Come, and for yourself, see how the process works. And I think that should make them definitely feel more comfortable,” Brekken said. “They’ll see that it is not hooked up to the internet … and how that is all done, so that we really don’t see where there could be miscounting of the ballots that go through the machines.”

Barrows, who was the lone vote against the audit resolution last month, echoed Houle in suggesting county officials could guide residents in seeking legislation.

“The heavy lift comes in that it’s their responsibility to carry that forward, not the county board, because that’s based on a political issue, a partisan political issue,” Barrows said. “ … Just as if we wanted something for the county, we would — as commissioners and as staff — we would have to lobby our state electeds.”

Steve Barrows.JPG
Commissioner Steve Barrows
2021 submitted photo

Barrows said based on local and national rhetoric, he expects distrust in elections to grow.

“I think what will most likely cure some of that will be time. It certainly won’t be overnight, and this election is too close to the last one and the terrible events of Jan. 6,” Barrows said. “So I don’t think this next one is going to be without controversy.”

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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