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Governor's recount: 'True believer' leads effective, wonky watchdog group that observes and audits

"I consider election integrity work and election reform a higher calling for social work," says Mark Halvorson.
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
"I consider election integrity work and election reform a higher calling for social work," says Mark Halvorson.

To just about everyone else, it was a jumble of humanity, boxes, ballots and partisans. It was the discouraging start of what looked like another protracted, litigious and fatiguing statewide recount.

But to mild-mannered Mark Halvorson last Monday's Hennepin County "post-election review" was, believe it or not, "fun … It's democracy in action. It's citizens being involved in observing the voting process," he said.


This true believer is the founder and director of Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota, a very small but extremely active and effective wonky watchdog group. From a tiny office on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis' Seward neighborhood, CEIMN has become a national resource for other good-government election groups and even secretaries of state around the nation.

A 'Macy's Christmas window' fascination
So there last Monday stood Halvorson, 55, reddish hair and biggish eyeglasses framing a boyish face, looking like a kid gazing wide-eyed at the Macy's Christmas window. He stretched his neck to take it all in from the back of the Hennepin County Government Center's basement auditorium. The county's post-election review was under way, a sort of dress-rehearsal for a recount. Halvorson had arranged with Hennepin County Elections Manager Rachel Smith to have CEIMN volunteers observe the process up close. Halvorson was in his glory.

He, more than most Minnesotans, is eagerly poised for the imminent governor's recount, yet another chapter in his quest to make sure elections in Minnesota and elsewhere are transparent and accurate. Since 2004, he has devoted his life to election observation, vote auditing and election reforms. He has quarterbacked the production of a series of documents for election officials nationwide, such as that popular page-turner "Principles and Best Practices for Post-Election Audits."

He also developed over the past year, the recount geek's digital bible: the nation's first searchable database for all 50 states' recount laws.

Sexy? No. Necessary? You betcha.

"People are fired up," Halvorson said Saturday, between training sessions for CEIMN volunteers prepping to observe the governor's recount, set to begin on Nov. 29.

Halvorson, a one-time social worker for children and, later, an employee assistance counselor, got fired up about election problems in 2004. He read about the way Ohio's elections officials botched the general election and blocked a potential recount, a recount that some believe Democrat John Kerry could have won and, therefore, could have defeated President George W. Bush.

Halvorson was among nine Minnesotans who traveled to Ohio to oversee the aftermath of its Election Day. He returned shocked and dismayed and soon after helped form CEIMN.

"I consider election integrity work and election reform a higher calling for social work," he said.

Among the goals of the fledgling group then and now: making sure there are paper ballots of record for all elections; the accurate counting and reporting of all votes; and the nonpartisan administration of elections.

Group stresses 'nonpartisan' nature
Halvorson is adamant that CEIMN is "nonpartisan." While it lobbies for election reform and affiliates with Common Cause, a more strident election law and campaign finance advocacy group, CEIMN recruits election-observing volunteers from all parties. It set up recruiting tables at Republican and DFL party conventions this year and, in 2008, at the DFL, GOP, Independence and Libertarian party conventions. This year, the CEIMN table was next to Michele Bachmann's at the GOP gathering.

But, clearly, CEIMN has a progressive bent; Halvorson, the son of a Luther Seminary professor, decades ago worked for the left-leaning Clergy and Laity Concerned doing human rights work.

Mark Halvorson at the Hennepin County post-election review last Monday talks with Hennepin County elections manager Rachel Smith.
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Mark Halvorson at the Hennepin County post-election review last Monday talks with Hennepin County elections manager Rachel Smith.

And CEIMN has faced off against the conservative Center for the American Experiment over the transparency and accuracy of the 2008 election with a report that disputes the center's assertions.

When he talks of the center's report, Halvorson gets angry because he didn't believe it was factually substantiated. Halvorson takes data seriously. "They didn't have one footnote in their entire report," he scoffed.

CEIMN's funding is a bit murky, but not suspicious. As a 501(c)(4) lobbying organization, CEIMN isn't required to reveal its donors.

Its 2009 tax filing shows an annual budget of about $52,600. Halvorson said revenues come from about "40 to 50" small donors and a handful of "larger" contributors. Halvorson is joined by an associate director, an intern and a volunteer on the staff. But because of his comfortable "personal circumstances" — that is, his financial status — Halvorson doesn't pay himself. "I don't get a dime from this," he said.

He just gets satisfaction, as he did during the 2008 recount. Remember when 132 votes went missing in Minneapolis? A search ensued at the city's elections warehouse. Then Minneapolis elections chief Cindy Reichert invited Halvorson and another CEIMN rep to observe the hunt for the ballots by the two political parties.

Halvorson explained, "One of the party representatives — and I'm not going to say which party, you'll never get it out of me — whispered in my ear, 'I want you to keep an eye on them,' " meaning the other party.

To which Halvorson coolly replied: "Actually, I'm keeping an eye on all of you."

Post-script
This morning, CEIMN is releasing a report at a Capitol news conference about ineligible voting and voting fraud in Minnesota during the 2008 election. It was researched and compiled by CEIMN Associate Director Kathy Bonnifield, in coordination with the Minnesota Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Alliance. The groups surveyed the state's county attorneys.

Jay Weiner, who won the Frank Premack Award for his coverage of the 2008 Coleman-Franken recount, is the author of "This Is Not Florida," a new book about the legal wrangling.

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Comments (4)

Sorry, I could tell this was a lefty guy from a lefty group by the first few paragraphs. The gentle non-snarky descriptions gave you away Jay! If this guy had ANYthing to do with conservatives or Rupublicans, you can bet this "unbiased" writer would have dismissed them in the first sentence.

I'm glad we have such a strong advocate for honest and transparent elections. People need to know that their vote got counted. That has not been the case in some recent elections, and I don't mean this one.
With people nl8ke Halvorson and Mark Ritchie helping the recount process, I feel satisfied that it is being honestly and from a non-partisan stance.

Was very glad to see that Mark Halvorson's group is helping monitor this election! Mark's integrity and honesty cannot be questioned!

@#1 ??? !!!

I don't understand. Is your beef against the author Jay Weiner or against Mark Halvorson?

I suppose Jay could be writing about the angel Gabriel in praising terms, and that would cause alarm bells to go off in your head.