It’s Steve Simon’s first presidential election year as Minnesota’s Secretary of State, and he’s doing all the things an election administrator should do before the big day.
His staff is testing the state’s IT infrastructure to make sure the system’s secure, that there’s enough bandwidth to handle the huge surge in traffic they get in Election Night. They’re keeping in contact with election officials in all 87 counties to answer any last-minute questions. He’s finalized the official list of Minnesota presidential write-in candidates, of which there are 44.
But then there are the things that no one could anticipate, like the unprecedented level of mistrust in election administrations across the nation. Republican nominee Donald Trump has made widespread allegations of a “rigged” election system this year, repeating them again on Sunday at a rally at a Minneapolis airport hangar. Around the country, Trump supporters plan to stake out polling places to make sure people aren’t cheating.
In Minnesota, more than 568,000 people have already cast early ballots, but there haven’t been widespread allegations of voter fraud — yet. That’s because the state’s election system works differently than most others. Also unlike most states? Minnesota’s election system has been put to the test twice in recent years.
How likely is it that someone could rig Minnesota’s election system?
If you ask Simon, it’s a “very remote possibility.” That’s because Minnesota has a decentralized election system, meaning it’s spread out across 87 counties and about 3,500 polling places instead of with a single administrator. In Minnesota, voters also put pen to paper to vote, and those paper ballots are put in secure metal boxes that aren’t connected to the internet during any point of the vote tallying.
Paper ballots and vote totals are reviewed by city, county, and state election officials several times before an election is ultimately certified by the state canvassing board. And according to the law, those paper votes must be kept around for two years after voting. If anyone suspects a vote tally has been changed, the physical ballots are on hand for a recount.
“To those who suspect that kind of planned misconduct, I will say very clearly, Minnesota’s election will not be rigged and it will not be fixed,” Simon said. “It would be extraordinarily hard to do that in Minnesota.”
Has anyone really examined the security of Minnesota’s system?
Lest we forget, Minnesota has gone through two very recent and thorough tests of its election system — thanks to statewide recounts in both 2010 and 2008. In particular, the 2008 recount between Sen. Al Franken and former Sen. Norm Coleman stretched out over eight months and put Minnesota’s election administration under the microscope. Instead of exposing instances of voter fraud, experts say both recounts affirmed that Minnesota has the nuts and bolts of elections down.
“One of the reasons we’ve had such sky high turnout is that people have a fundamental confidence in the integrity of the election system,” he said. “I don’t think people would vote in such high numbers if they thought the system was rigged.”
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But there are already some complaints, right?
There have been complaints about potential problems with the process, but not necessarily outright voter fraud. The Minnesota Voters Alliance has gathered several hundred signatures and filed lawsuits in Hennepin, Ramsey and St. Louis counties contending that the Secretary of State’s office doesn’t do enough to check the status of ineligible voters, including felons. Those voters are labeled with a “challenged” status, and if they try to vote at the polls, election officials can ask them a series of questions to determine whether or not they are eligible. The lawsuit argues that doesn’t go far enough, and felons should be taken off the voter rolls entirely. Under state law, county attorneys have the legal authority and jurisdiction to investigate possible election law violations, so complaints should be filed through there.
How will Minnesota election officials handle potential poll watchers who suspect cheating?
In Minnesota, the law is clear on the issue: One poll “challenger” from each political party is allowed per polling place. Anyone else who is at the polling place but not voting or designated as a challenger must stay 100 feet from the building. Designated individuals challenge someone’s eligibility to vote, but those challenges must be based on personal knowledge of a voter’s eligibility, according to the law. Poll challengers cannot directly address a voter, only an election judge or official on site. “They have some personal basis to believe someone is not eligible,” Simon said. “Not that they just don’t look right, or they look funny, or just a hunch, or a vibe, or a feeling.”
With increased suspicions, will there be extra security for voters at polling places?
It’s not the Secretary of State’s job to bulk up on security staff, but each polling place can designate a sergeant at arms or security official to stay on site, as long as they aren’t a member of law enforcement (law enforcement can be called in when there’s an incident). Simon said he’s had more calls from local election officials about their options when it comes to security. “We don’t have guns and badges but we do regularly advise election administrators on the law,” he said.
What’s this about the Justice Department getting involved?
The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division plans to deploy more than 500 personnel to 28 states on Tuesday to make sure every eligible voter has access to a ballot. There won’t be any staff directly located in Minnesota, but lawyers from the department will be available via hotline starting early Tuesday morning to monitor complaints and answer any questions about voting eligibility. This isn’t a new measure, however: The department has monitored federal elections since 1965, when the Voting Rights Act passed.