Election Integrity: An Experiment

Election integrity is a critically important issue. In Minnesota, we have an administration and particularly a Secretary of State whose object seems to be maximizing opportunities for fraud. We have same-day registration, but no provisional balloting. This means people vote first, and we try to find out whether they are actually qualified after it is too late. Counties send post cards to same-day registrants who can’t verify their names and addresses to see whether they come back as undeliverable. The Minnesota Voters Alliance sued to obtain these and other records from the Secretary of State, but Minnesota’s Supreme Court held that he can keep them secret. So American Experiment decided to conduct our own experiment. In this article, from the upcoming issue of Thinking Minnesota, Communications Director Bill Walsh reveals the results of our experiment and more broadly addresses issues of ballot security in Minnesota.

One of the many ways our nation remains divided is over election integrity. One side has serious doubts about who’s voting — and who’s counting the votes. The other side calls such doubts a “Big Lie” and expends a lot of energy trying to silence claims of voter fraud. Never mind that successful fraud, by definition, goes undetected.

In Minnesota the matter is made worse because Secretary of State Steve Simon refuses to release challenged voter lists, despite widespread support for stronger voting laws. February’s Thinking Minnesota poll found that 69 percent of Minnesotans favor a photo ID requirement at the polls. Only 28 percent are opposed. The same poll showed that one-third of respondents lack confidence in election integrity, a shocking number in a state that leads the nation every year in voter turnout. But Simon called the 2020 election a “tremendous success” and dismissed claims to the contrary as “foolish and irresponsible” and “unworthy of attention.”

Center of the American Experiment worked with the Minnesota Voters Alliance to shine some light on the weakest part of Minnesota’s election system, election day registration. Call it the American Experiment Voter Integrity Project.

Voting history

Minnesota was one of the first states in the nation to adopt the practice of election day registration in 1974 and support among the electorate remains strong. In fact, 353,179 Minnesotans registered to vote on Election Day 2016. That number dropped during the pandemic in 2020 to 259,742, but only because so many voters chose to mail in their ballots early.

Same-day registration is not unique in our country — 20 states offer some form of the practice each November. What is unique to Minnesota is the absence of a provisional ballot procedure to verify that those registering on Election Day are actually eligible to vote. In nearly all states where voters can’t immediately prove they are legal voters, a provisional ballot is employed. Election officials use the days between the election and the official canvass of results to confirm the eligibility of the voters who couldn’t demonstrate their eligibility on election day. If the voter is deemed eligible, the ballot is counted and included in the totals.

All but three of the states with election day registration also have a provisional ballot process in place to prevent voter fraud. In New Hampshire, election officials take a photo of new voters at the poll and have them sign an affidavit swearing they are eligible to vote. Idaho is the only state, besides Minnesota, without a provisional ballot procedure to accompany their election day registration. (Idaho does have a photo ID requirement for all voters at the polls.)

Vouching

Another voting irregularity in Minnesota is the ability of a neighbor or friend to “vouch” for the residency of an unregistered voter in their precinct. An eligible voter can vouch for up to eight other residents each Election Day, simply by signing an oath “swearing to their residence” in the precinct. Vouching is used to register voters who otherwise can’t demonstrate to election judges where they live, using a driver’s license, student ID or one of the many documents from Minnesota Rules governing elections:

…an original bill, including account statements and start-of-service notification, for telephone, television, or Internet provider services, regardless of how those telephone, television, or Internet provider services are delivered; gas, electric, solid waste, water, or sewer services; credit card or banking services; or rent or mortgage payments.

There is a history of abuse of the vouching process in Minnesota:

 In the 2010 election, a group representing Students Organizing for America, an outgrowth of President Barack Obama’s political organization, was accused of illegally vouching for students on the University of Minnesota campus. Students were meeting outside the polling location and dividing into groups after being assigned to a “voucher.”

 In the 2012 election, two women were accused of voter fraud after suspicions were raised by an election judge because a counselor from a drug treatment program brought 15 patients to the polls and vouched for their residency.

In the 2016 election, six percent of election day registrants in Minnesota used vouching to establish their eligibility to vote, equaling 20,000 voters.

Registrations treated differently

Another flaw is the difference in treatment between voting early and on Election Day. During early voting (by mail or in person), your application is vetted through the state system to verify eligibility. Your name and address are checked against the Department of Public Safety database or the Social Security database. If there is a problem with your registration, the county auditor must notify you 20 days before the election and give you a chance to make corrections. “The applicant must be allowed to vote only after completing the registration or after registering or updating their registration using current information for the applicant.”

But if a voter goes to a polling location on Election Day and registers (using documents or through vouching), verification is done after the election. That is, after the vote has been counted. The county auditor runs the same verification using the Department of Public Safety and Social Security databases, but it’s a moot point once a vote is tallied. This is a serious flaw in Minnesota’s verification process and the impetus for adding a provisional balloting system.

The Office of Legislative Auditor found serious problems with election day registration in its 2018 program evaluation report. Among that report’s findings:

 Depending on how and when persons register to vote, their identity and eligibility to vote may not be checked against other data sources until after they have voted.

 Minnesota allows voters to register on Election Day, which allows ineligible persons to register and vote.

 County staff create and update records of registered voters in the Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS), Minnesota’s centralized database of registered voters, but a voter’s information may be inaccurate on Election Day.

The legislative auditors exposed the weakness of the SVRS. Their report found more than 26,000 persons marked “challenged” in the SVRS from the 2016 general election. These voters registered (and voted) that Election Day but had their eligibility status questioned after the fact by county election officials. It’s bad enough these voters were able to vote in 2016. It is even worse that they were still on a challenge list two years later and allowed to vote again.

Postal Verification Cards (PVCs)

A voter lands on the challenged list after county election officials attempt to verify his eligibility. One of the tools officials use is a postcard mailed to the address the voter used to register. If the postcard comes back as undeliverable, it raises a red flag about that voter’s eligibility and is supposed to trigger an investigation. From the legislative audit report:

County election staff mail postal verification cards (PVCs) to confirm the addresses of new and updated registrants. The postal service may not send the PVC to a forwarding address; it may be delivered only to the name and address on the card.

If the postal service returns any cards to the county election office as undeliverable, county officials must resolve the reasons for their return. A postcard could be returned for many reasons, ranging from inaccurate data entry to fraudulent registration.

The rules are even more explicit for election day registrations:

The county auditor must send notices to election day registrants whose information cannot be verified and request that the voters contact the registration office. If the voter does not provide information that resolves the discrepancy so that the voter registration application can be verified, the county auditor must challenge the voter in the statewide voter registration system and may refer the matter to the county attorney.

The legislative auditors updated their audit in 2019 and criticized the method counties are using to send postcards:

The requirement for counties to send address verification postcards to a random sample of election day registrants within 10 days after an election, as currently implemented, does not serve a useful purpose. A sample size of three percent of election day registrants, set by the Office of the Secretary of State through rulemaking, is not large enough to yield useful data in counties with small populations. Moreover, county officials we interviewed did not send the postcards to a random sample of registrants, and several counties did not complete the task within the required 10 days.

Lawsuit against Steve Simon

The Minnesota Voters Alliance (MVA) read the 2018 auditor’s report with interest and asked Simon for the current list of challenged voters in the SVRS. To identify fraud, such as felons voting before they were eligible or people voting from bogus addresses, the challenged list would be the first place to look.

Simon refused to share the list with the MVA, claiming it was non-public data under the Minnesota Data Practices Act. The MVA sued Simon in District Court, saying his interpretation of the data act was too narrow and unsupported by law.

Normally, all data is considered public unless the legislature specifically deems it non-public. In the case of election data, the legislature has been very specific about when election data is non-public, such as to protect people who fear for their safety because of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. The law says:

The secretary of state may provide copies of the public information lists and other information from the statewide registration system…

Simon argued that he was protecting voters’ privacy. But a voter’s name, address, phone number (if they provide it), email address and age are already public. All Simon was protecting was which voters appeared on challenge lists from county election officials.

Minnesota Voters Alliance won in District Court and their victory was unanimously affirmed on appeal by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Slam dunk. Until Simon appealed once again, to the Minnesota Supreme Court. A majority consisting of judges appointed by Mark Dayton reversed the lower court decisions, hanging their hat on the word “may.” Simon may make the data public, but he doesn’t have to.

What does Simon know about the challenged voter data that we don’t? Was the legislative auditor’s office on to something with its program evaluations? Why won’t Simon release the data?

The American Experiment Voter Integrity Project

American Experiment decided to conduct its own mailing of postal verification cards following the 2020 election to see how many would come back as undeliverable. The experiment was somewhat delayed because we did not have access to the list of who registered and voted on Election Day until the counties and secretary of state made that data public a few months after the election. And although undeliverable cards do not necessarily imply outright election fraud, the percentage of undeliverable mail and returned mail surprised us.

There were 20,056 voters who registered to vote on Election Day in 2020 in Minneapolis. We mailed postcards to a little more than half of them (11,857) as soon as we had access to the data in February 2021.

Before the cards even got to the post office, the mail house software rejected 92 addresses as undeliverable. Some were brand new construction not even in the database yet, some were due to data entry errors (street instead of avenue), some had street numbers that didn’t exist (425 8th St SE), and one appears to be in Linden Hills Park (4236 York Ave S).
Of the 11,765 cards that made it through the mail house, 887 were returned as undeliverable — no such person with that name living at that address.

The undeliverable and returned cards do not represent 979 fraudulent votes, but hundreds merit further investigation.

Many of the returned cards came from the University of Minnesota and Augsburg University student housing. College students move around a lot, but these just voted in November. Did they all graduate? Did the schools shut down in early 2021 because of COVID and send kids home? Seems unlikely. Some examples:

 Fifty-seven cards returned from 2508 Delaware Street SE, known as the Quad on Delaware.

 Thirty-six cards returned from 311 Harvard Street SE, known as the Hub Apartments.

 Thirty-six cards returned from 900 Washington Ave SE, known as Dinnaken House.

 Twenty-six cards returned from 800 22nd Ave S, known as Urness Hall.

College campuses are hotbeds of political activism, and state and local campaigns spend a lot of time and energy recruiting students to vote and volunteer. Joe Biden received 81 percent of the vote in Minneapolis Precinct 2-10, where many of these addresses are located.

We also had three cards returned from the Days Hotel on the U of M campus, one from the Millennium Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, and one from a Minnesota Teen Challenge treatment facility. Not illegal on its face, but certainly worth investigating.

It’s reasonable to assume some of these voters moved between the time they registered to vote and the mailing of our postcard. But if you apply our eight percent return rate against the 259,742 voters who registered statewide to vote on Election Day 2020, it would represent 20,779 registrations that are at least questionable and might represent voter fraud. (There are, of course, numerous other ways of committing fraud that were not part of this experiment.)

This list deserves more scrutiny. Simon should show us the data on challenged ballots. Counties should make public the results of their postcard mailings.

The privacy argument worked with Mark Dayton’s court appointees and a sympathetic and lazy press, but it shouldn’t work with legislators, given that 32 percent of Minnesotans have expressed a lack of faith in the current electoral system. Following these recommendations will restore voter confidence:

 The verification process for election day registration should be the same as registration before Election Day. Voters should not be allowed to vote until their eligibility has been determined.

 Minnesota should add a provisional ballot process to election law, like other states that use it to complement election day registration.

 Minnesota should add a photo ID requirement to election law.

 Simon should immediately release the challenged voter data requested by the Minnesota Voters Alliance.

 The Minnesota Legislature should hold Simon accountable in public hearings for not releasing the challenged voter data.

 The Minnesota Legislature and Secretary of State should fully implement the recommendations of the Legislative Auditor from the 2018 and 2019 program evaluations of election day registration.

The 2018 auditor’s report, our postcard experiment and Simon’s inexplicable refusal to release the data all lead to the same conclusion: Because there’s no voter ID requirement, Minnesota’s system of election day registration without provisional ballots is the weakest in the nation — the type that facilitates fraud — and it must be fortified.

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