by CHRIS ROGERS
What started as a contentious debate over local election integrity ended in relative harmony this week. At the request of citizens, the Winona County Board added members from both major parties to the local Absentee Ballot Board, the group that reviews and counts absentee ballots. Local election officials initially resisted that move, but a unanimous County Board insisted.
In a mundane January vote, the County Board appointed the members of this year’s Absentee Ballot Board. As was the case in 2016, they were all county employees. Winonan Bill Rowekamp and Winona County Republicans representative Jerry Papenfuss raised concerns about that at a County Board public comment period in September.
What the law says
“Under Minnesota law, absentee mail-in ballots are supposed to be evaluated by citizen judges in equal numbers from major parties for balance,” Rowekamp asserted. “The Ballot Board, by law, is to have an equal number of members, one half Republican, one half Democrat. Members are not to be paid county staff,” Papenfuss claimed.
Those claims were incorrect. The law allows two kinds of people to serve on the Ballot Board: election judges, who are typically citizen members of one local political party or another; and deputy auditors, often county staff members deputized by the head election official, Winona County Auditor-Treasurer Sandra Suchla.
“There’s a lot of information, and frankly misinformation, going around,” Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman said, explaining that county staff may indeed serve on the Ballot Board. “State law allows ballot boards to consist of deputy auditors, election judges, or both,” Sonneman wrote in a memo.
For ballot boards that do include election judges, there is one requirement related to party affiliation, but it is not as specific as requiring an equal number from both parties. “Election judges performing the duties in this section must be of different major political parties …” according to Minnesota State Statutes Section 203B.121, subdivision 2.
For election judges administering in-person voting at a polling place, state law is more specific: No more than half of them be from a single party. However, those rules don’t apply to absentee ballot boards.
While it might not be legally mandated, having a mix of citizen election judges from both parties sounded like a good idea to County Board members Marcia Ward and Steve Jacob. They called for the board to consider it, and other County Board members didn’t have a problem with that. "Certainly, I want everyone to feel comfortable about voting in Winona County,” County Board member Chris Meyer said.
County Board, election officials debate
When the County Board considered the issue again on October 13, Suchla and Sonneman pushed back against the proposal. In a back and forth that lasted a half hour, Jacob repeatedly asked, how can the county appoint citizens to observe this process and assure everyone that it went fairly? “They want to make sure that there are a couple of Democrats and a couple of Republicans … so that in the end, they can say, ‘Yeah, it played out right. We saw it,’” he stated.
“The due diligence was done in January,” Sonneman told Jacob. The County Board already appointed a Ballot Board whose members swore an oath to uphold the constitution and run the election fairly, Sonneman added.
Ward pressed Sonneman on the central question: “Could we add people to the Ballot Board?” She didn’t get an answer right away.
“Could we add people to the Ballot Board?” Jacob repeated. “How can we accomplish that so the community feels we have full transparency in our government?” he added.
“We have set out the Ballot Board per statute. It follows statute,” Suchla said. "I guess at this point in time I would not feel comfortable opening up this Ballot Board,” she added.
A certain part of the political spectrum is raising unfounded doubts about the election process all over the country this year, Sonneman said. Years of research shows Minnesota’s process is fair and secure, she told Jacob, adding, “You can trust the election process.”
Suchla, too, expressed some misgivings about what was behind all this. “I guess I’m a little concerned,” she said. “This is my third election, and this is the first year this is being challenged. So what’s causing it now?”
This year is different because of the amount of absentee voting, Jacob replied. In a normal year, most voting takes place at in-person polling places where there are citizen election judges from different parties to oversee the process, he pointed out. With so much absentee voting this year due to the pandemic, it’s important for there to be some outside observers involved in that, too, he argued.
In an interview Papenfuss drew a similar comparison between polling places to absentee voting: “There are 16 precincts in the city of Winona. Each of those is required to have a Democrat and a Republican [election judge]. Now you go back to this ballot counting, and now you say the parties aren’t going to be represented here. Does that make any sense?”
Unanimous vote adds election judges
The October 13 meeting ended anticlimactically. Sonneman needed more time to research whether the County Board legally could add more members to the Ballot Board at this point. It can, she determined. By the time the County Board met again on October 19, the controversy seemed to have evaporated. Sonneman recommended a process for adding election judges from the local parties to the ballot board, local GOP and DFL leaders were comfortable with it, and the County Board voted unanimously to approve it. Eight election judges — four Republicans, four Democrats — were added to a pool of 17 county staff members serving on the Ballot Board.
“I think it doesn’t hurt anything,” Winona County DFL Vice Chair Jacob Grippen said an interview, pointing out that all of the appointees had to be fully trained election judges.
Processing hundreds to thousands of absentee ballots doesn’t happen all in one big meeting of the Ballot Board. It takes days and weeks of tedious work. To accomplish it, Ballot Board members are broken into different teams and shifts to process batches of absentee ballots. The counting work started October 21 and will continue until at least November 10, because mail-in ballots that are postmarked by election day will be counted if received by November 10.
To oversimplify, the process has two main parts. First, Ballot Board members review the signature envelopes that contain each absentee ballot. They check the signature and voter identification information before determining whether the ballot should be accepted or rejected. If a voter’s ballot is rejected for some error, the county contacts them or sends them a replacement ballot. Second, once a ballot envelope has been accepted, Ballot Board members open the inner, secrecy envelope to reveal the actual ballot and run it through a vote-counting machine.
So far, citizen election judges have been tasked with counting the actual ballots, while other members of the Ballot Board — Suchla and her staff — have been reviewing signature envelopes to accept or reject the envelopes, according to election judges involved.
DFL election judge John Campbell, who served his first shift as a new Ballot Board member, described the process as scrupulously secure. Ballot Board members double check the envelopes and ballots at each step of the process, no one is ever left alone with the ballots, and the room they’re stored in is locked, he said.
Mostly, it’s painstaking. “You cannot imagine the infinite variety of ways that people fold these things. Some of them were folded in such a mind boggling way that the machine could not read the ballots,” Campbell said. A lot of time is needed just to flatten out ballots so the vote-counting machines will accept them, he added.
“Sandra and her staff were totally on top of things, totally professional and cooperative,” Campbell stated. “So from what I can see is they’re doing their jobs despite this avalanche of absentee ballots coming in.”
Asked if he was happy with how things turned out, Papenfuss said, “Well, I think we have to wait until all the votes are counted and see how it goes. Our people are there. If there’s a discrepancy, it’s up to them to speak up, but so far, everything has been resolved. I’m comfortable. I have confidence in Sandra and her crew, and I feel that things are going well, but let’s wait until we’re done.”