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Watchdog groups, political partisans plan busy Election Day at Minnesota polls

The state DFL and GOP have recruited volunteer attorneys and poll watchers, and government officials have been conferring to ensure that elections go smoothly.

All eyes — from political parties, watchdog groups, and various levels of government — will be on the polls on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Darren Hauck

Independent and partisan watchdog groups, political parties, national campaigns and governmental officials will be busy at the polls Tuesday observing operations throughout Minnesota, a state known of late for close elections.

The state DFL and Republican parties have recruited volunteer attorneys and poll watchers. Meanwhile, the secretary of state, the state attorney general and city and county elections officials have been conferring to ensure that elections go smoothly.

Many of the same organizations have been educating voters in the months leading up to Election Day to prevent problems. Numerous 1-800 numbers, for example, have been taking calls from voters or will be available on Election Day.

City officials have trained election judges on the relevant Minnesota laws, and the parties have instructed observers what to look for to prevent fraud or vote suppression.

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Attorney General Lori Swanson has a handful of lawyers ready to defend the secretary of state in any legal challenges. Cities and counties also have attorneys on reserve, and — to a lesser extent — Minnesota’s U.S. Attorney’s Office also stands ready to intervene in the event of alleged voting fraud or to defend their municipalities.

On-call judges in many of Minnesota’s 10 judicial districts, some specially designated for Election Day, are ready to hear challenges if local officials can’t defuse sometimes-testy polling place disputes or if election officials can’t resolve issues.

“The courts have the authority over the election process — however, there are ways to give informal opinions and advice, and that’s oftentimes the way it works,” said Hennepin County Elections Manager Rachel Smith, an elections whiz who oversaw the 2008 U.S. Senate recount for Anoka County and the 2010 gubernatorial recount for her current employer.

“It’s mainly about local governments just cooperating together and talking and communicating.”

Polling place issues

In the event of a disagreement, “Suddenly that polling place becomes a confined, angry place,” said  Doug Chapin, an elections expert at the University of Minnesota.

Over the years, Election Day issues often have arisen, including these:

• In 2010, University of Minnesota students were accused of fraudulently vouching for people they didn’t know, but  all the challenged voters ended up being eligible to vote in the precinct.

• In 2006, legal action on Election Day allowed a polling place to remain open late after paperwork discrepancies blocked access for student voters.

Election judges in that case were turning away voters from a polling place in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis because they said utility statements from an apartment complex nearby weren’t valid.

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Christopher Dolan, a volunteer attorney serving at the time as a DFL poll watcher, took issue with the election judges’ decision. After a flurry of calls to elections officials in Minneapolis, who consulted with the Secretary of State’s Office, the order came down reaffirming that the students’ paperwork was inadequate under the office’s interpretation of state law because they didn’t come directly from a utility company.

The 950-unit apartment complex mainly houses University of Minnesota students.

Dolan quickly contacted the DFL, who alerted Alan Weinblatt, an attorney representing the party. Weinblatt started a lawsuit in Hennepin County and dragged Dolan and at least one student who had been blocked from voting in front of on-call District Judge Gary Larson during an emergency hearing just hours later.

Shortly after 4 p.m., Larson issued an order allowing the students to vote using the utility statement — to the chagrin of then-Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer.

“We are very, very fortunate in this state that we have a responsive judiciary,” said Weinblatt, who isn’t working for the DFL this cycle. “Some people might call it activist. I don’t call it that, because I call it responsiveness.”

The judge also directed the polling place to remain open an hour later in a second order just before voting ended elsewhere at 8 p.m.

“Of course, in the last hour it sort of became a circus,” Dolan recalled. The media showed up in droves looking for disenfranchised college students, and there was an effort to re-recruit voters from the building who had been turned away earlier. “This is sort of a rare occurrence where we had a major situation,” he added.

Lawsuit a rarity in recent years

Weinblatt said he couldn’t recall a single Election Day lawsuit in Minnesota since then.

The resolution of the case illustrates how problems — however uncommon — are solved in Minnesota on Election Day.

John Kostouros, a spokesman for the Minnesota Judicial Branch, said districts have “on call” judges available on many occasions.

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Smith, speaking about her time in Anoka County, said a specific judge was assigned there to handle any Election Day issues, but that isn’t the case currently in Hennepin County.

Weinblatt, the attorney representing the DFL in recent election years, said he typically contacted the state’s 10 judicial districts in advance to establish contact with a chief judge or ask for a specific judge to be appointed for any elections problems. With the exception of an occasional rural district, it usually worked out.

“It isn’t that I had to go flailing around,” he said. “In those days, I had called or written in advance to say, ‘Who is it that I go see if there’s an election problem?’ ”

But most situations are much less dramatic: a malfunctioning ballot counter, for instance, or a misunderstanding over where to vote, or partisans straying too close to a polling place.

A web of city, county, state and federal elections officials — ranging from a city clerk in Minnetonka to the U.S. attorney for Minnesota — collaborates to ensure elections run smoothly, and they’ve been preparing for the heated contest just a day away for a long time.

“Almost everything is planned out,” Smith said. “We’ve been meticulously planning this election for even a year ahead of time.”

Election Day monitoring

Elections officials are used to working with a variety of voting integrity groups — including the two state parties.

A joint DFL-Obama campaign venture on voter protection and information has taken over the DFL’s communications office, and DFL Chairman Ken Martin said hundreds of attorneys like Dolan will be available in the metro and across the state to address issues as they arise on Tuesday.

The election protection program will look to handle complaints from voters about whether they’re being incorrectly turned away from the polls and whether election judges are giving the right instructions. It’ll also be another outlet for voters to get routine questions answered.

“Our guess is about 90 percent of those questions are going to be ‘Where’s my polling place?’ and 10 percent may be related to election law,” said Jeff Blodgett, who is running the Obama campaign’s election operation in Minnesota.

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The state GOP initially declined to comment on its voter protection efforts, but Deputy Chair Kelly Fenton acknowledged that its program is roughly similar to the DFL’s but wouldn’t offer specifics.

Martin and Blodgett also wouldn’t share many details of their plans .

The Romney campaign doesn’t have offices in Minnesota, but the state GOP has established a presence for the Republican nominee across the state.

The National Republican Campaign Committee offers campaign lawyers general tips and training on election integrity through weekly calls, but it’s unclear if any Minnesota candidates have participated.

Blodgett did offer that thousands of Obama volunteers across the state have been making calls and hitting “hundreds of thousands of doors” to educate voters about the logistics of voting, including a special campaign website urging Minnesotans to vote.

The Obama campaign has 11 offices in Minnesota and has been working here for 14 months. A recent campaign email said roughly 3,500 campaign volunteers already had worked 37,000 hours in the state.

Election integrity efforts have become the norm because of the contentious 2008 Franken-Coleman recount and the 2010 Dayton-Emmer recount, Martin said.

“It’s become really typical here in Minnesota, given our history of recounts in the past two election cycles in particular,” he said. “I think the outlook’s only changed as much as we’re cognizant any given time there could be a recount in this state, given how polarized this state is … We’ve certainly increased our awareness, certainly increased our efficiency and sophistication as it relates to election protection.”

Minnesota Majority, a group affiliated with the pro-voting amendment campaign, has had its own election integrity efforts as part of a coalition since 2010, and it’s continuing this election cycle.

“We’ll be monitoring for fraud and trying to address it as soon as it comes up or as soon as it comes to our attention,” said Dan McGrath, executive director of the organization.

Minnesota election law praised

Those who administer elections — and the experts who analyze them — credit the clarity of Minnesota’s law for preventing problems or resolving them before they get out of control.

“A lot of times if there’s an issue or a problem on Election Day — our state laws are very precise — they’re very clear, which results in very little litigation on Election Day,” Smith said. “We have a big election procedure manual, and it’s written by the Legislature.”

Chapin, the expert, said Minnesota’s “fairly liberal identification policy” and same-day registration ability makes it harder for poll watchers to challenge voters when they attempt to cast a ballot.

“Unlike another state like Ohio, where a voter can be denied a ballot … there aren’t as many ‘friction points’ in Minnesota as there are in other states,” he said.

Blodgett of the Obama camp said his experience has proved similar.

“Of course, we think about those potentials, but to be honest, there’s very little that goes wrong at polling places in Minnesota,” he said. “For the most part, and I’ve been involved in a lot of elections, there’s hardly any incidents, and it’s mostly all just positive flow of people exercising their right to vote.”

Jeanne Cooney, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney District of Minnesota, said she hasn’t seen many problems in her roughly 30 years working at the office.

Cooney said her office is also ready on Election Day to handle calls related to voting irregularities and coordinates well with the other state agencies that handle elections. Its focus is mainly on investigating and prosecuting potential fraud or wrongdoing.

Beth Fraser, governmental affairs director in Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s office, said typical problems include jammed ballot counters and voters confused about polling place locations. “The vast majority of it is routine,” she said, but added that if it appears election judges aren’t following guidelines or if voter suppression is occurring, her office would contact the appropriate city clerk or county attorney to investigate. 

Her office has relationships with elections officials in each of Minnesota’s 87 counties and many of the smaller cities under them.

If a voter has a problem, or there’s a malfunction or if an observer or attorney notices something out of the ordinary, the decentralized web of elections officials from every level of government are ready to act.

Fraser said if her office gets a call from an observer, election judge or political party, she checks in with the appropriate person to make sure the problem is getting adequately addressed. An election judge, a city clerk or a county elections official can act in an advisory capacity to resolve many situations before it ever reaches the secretary of state.

“If there’s some sort of equipment malfunction and we get a call about it, we just call to make sure that the county or city knows,” she said. “In most cases, when we call to let them know, the answer is, ‘Yeah, I heard that from my head election judge. We have a new machine on the way out there.’ ”

Chapin, the U elections expert, said there’s really no way to be sure what will happen on Tuesday.

“Until we know exactly who’s going to show up and what information they’re going to use and what they’re going to do, it’s going to make things difficult to predict on Election Day,” he said. “That’s the biggest wild card for November.”