Crow Wing County Board agrees to ask state for election audit
Members cite confidence in system, desire to prove it
BRAINERD, Minn. — The ball is now in Secretary of State Steve Simon’s court as to whether to conduct a forensic audit of the 2020 election in Crow Wing County.
The County Board approved a resolution 4-1 Tuesday, Jan. 4, requesting Simon undertake an audit sought by a group of people who’ve repeatedly expressed concerns about alleged fraudulent activity impacting the 2020 election results. The resolution came following a legal opinion presented last week by County Attorney Don Ryan, whose interpretation of relevant statutes, rules and court cases found the board had no authority to conduct such an audit itself.
In the resolution, the board makes clear it stands by the election process in Crow Wing County — but the fact people continue to raise doubts is an issue in need of addressing.
“The Crow Wing County Board continues to have faith in the 2020 election results as valid and reliable but it is equally troubling that there are citizens who still have a sincerely held belief that it was not,” the resolution states. “ … The Crow Wing County Board believes that there is nothing to hide in a free and fair election and if a full forensic audit of the 2020 election can help to restore the faith in our processes, we believe that is a legitimate public policy outcome.”
As part of the request, the board asks Simon to “engage election judges of all major political parties in monitoring the process and the results in order to restore universal understanding that our elections are open, free, and fair.”
Before commissioners considered the resolution, Pastor Ben Davis of Remnant Ministry Center in Brainerd — who has stood on behalf of the group on a number of occasions — spoke during open forum to thank the board for the resolution.
“You did what you believe in your heart you could do, and so I want to thank you very much for that,” Davis said. “I think it’s a very healthy America when we have the people getting involved, and so I want to thank all the folks that came here as well. … This is what a healthy America looks like, and I’m so grateful that we get to exercise this freedom in this nation.”
Davis later said the resolution as proposed was written well but didn’t fully capture what the group hoped to achieve. He zeroed in on the phrase “full forensic audit of the results of the 2020 election.”
“That might not jump out to you, but it jumped out to me,” Davis said. “ … We weren’t concerned with the results. What we want to know is election material, analysis of data and the process. That’s actually what we’re requesting for the audit. If you do those things, the results will just be included in that. … I guess we’re more so making sure that the law is being followed and that fraud wasn’t taking place in our county. That was our concern.”
In response, Commissioner Rosemary Franzen sought to amend the resolution to replace the word “results” with “election materials and data,” a change approved in a unanimous vote.
Commissioner Steve Barrows spoke up before the next vote, stating the group’s goals remained unclear to him.
“This whole process has been confusing to me and I apologize to the group, but we’ve had so many different speakers and different items that were trying to be achieved through the process and that has, to me, caused a conflict of understanding exactly what it is,” Barrows said. “ … I’m not prepared at this point to vote for this resolution. So just to be transparent, I will be voting against this resolution, because of the way the process has taken place. And I’m confused on what exactly is being asked.”
Barrows was the lone vote against the resolution, which passed with the support of Franzen, Chairman Doug Houge and commissioners Paul Koering and Bill Brekken.
Julie Dillon — a Cass County resident who spoke at the last meeting in support of the request to the secretary of state — said although she understands Ryan’s legal interpretation means shifting the request to the state is the right process, she’d like to see that process changed.
“What I would like to suggest is that somehow we get rid of that statute that requires us to ask the secretary of state for permission to do this audit,” Dillon said. “We have offered to provide the funding and the manpower to get this done, and it just seems to me like we the people should be able to ask that, and you the board should be able to grant it as what we have come forward with.”
Barrows clarified the writing of statutes is in the hands of the state Legislature, not the County Board. He encouraged Dillon to bring concerns with those laws to the state Capitol building.
“That would be the process to do it. It wouldn’t be to come to us and have the five of us do that,” Barrows said. “Even though the five of us may agree with you.”
A request for comment from Simon’s office was not returned Tuesday.
Commissioners explain votes
After Tuesday’s meeting adjourned, Franzen, who made the unanimously approved motion during the Dec. 28 meeting asking for a resolution to be drafted, said when citizens come forward with a request, it’s the board’s job to listen.
“I want to make sure that there was integrity, which I believe there was, but I want to make sure that everything was done right in this process,” Franzen said.
Asked to clarify whether she had concerns over the county’s process or measures already in place to prevent election tampering and ensure integrity, Franzen replied, “I’m very comfortable with what we do in Crow Wing County, but our citizens aren’t. And it’s important that our citizens feel that our elections are held with integrity.”
Franzen said if election judges and staff members know the board at all, they won’t have a problem with the resolution, noting it was drafted by County Administrator Tim Houle. And the general public would likely agree as well, she said.
“I don’t think there’s anyone, probably, who doesn’t want to make sure that our elections are held with integrity,” Franzen said.
Asked to explain why this citizen request was honored among a litany of requests regularly made of the board, Franzen said people don’t usually come forward in groups, and when they do, commissioners always listen.
“We always listen, and usually get to resolve it and this is — all we’re trying to do is resolve an issue that a big group of people believe is an issue,” she said.
The other three commissioners who supported the resolution echoed Franzen in their expressed beliefs in the integrity of how the county runs its elections.
Brekken said he felt comfortable making the request of the secretary of state because that’s where the request belonged in the first place.
“I think we run a very fair election here. I think that in Crow Wing County, it’s an excellent job that they’ve done,” Brekken said. “ … I think it’s a state issue. I think our legislators are the ones that have to be taking up the issue.”
Brekken said he hopes election judges and staffers know they’ve done an excellent job and the resolution does not reflect on them.
“To me, it shows that — and especially maybe in the state of the country at this point — it’s really so those that have the question, we’re trying to show them that there is nothing wrong,” Brekken said. “So just sitting back and saying, ‘We think there’s nothing wrong’ — we’re trying to prove it, to show them that you’re not going to find anything.”
Still, Brekken acknowledged even if the state pursued the audit and it showed nothing improper, he didn’t think some would ever be satisfied.
“I think that there’s a movement going on in the country that we have to get prepared for at our level, and that is that after the insurrection of last year (on Jan. 6), what we’re going to start seeing is that the strategy is changing,” Brekken said. “And they’re going to start coming to school boards — we’re seeing it — they’re going to come to cities, and they’re going to start being more vocal, and they’re going to come to the county commissioners, and the issues that they’re bringing up are not in our scope of responsibility.”
Houge pointed to his time on the canvassing board with Koering as a reason he fully supported Crow Wing County’s elections infrastructure.
“We spent more time throwing, kind of, ‘what ifs’ at (Administrative Services Director) Deb Erickson, trying to figure out how we could sneak our way in and mess with the results,” Houge said. “And every possibility we threw at her, she had an answer and proof that that would not work. So I have total confidence in our system. My only reason for moving this forward is just to prove that and show some of the doubters that we run a good election process here.”
Houge agreed with Brekken a forensic audit likely wouldn’t satisfy everyone who believes election fraud took place.
“I believe there’s enough throughout the nation that they’re just going to latch on to something else and throw some untrue information out there. It’s just, unfortunately, the world we’re living in today,” Houge said. “Will they be satisfied with this? I hope, you know, that they’ll walk away and say, you know what, we can mark Crow Wing County off of the list of counties that are fraudulent in their election process.”
Houge said since this issue arose, he’d received more calls from people with confidence in the election system than not.
“Unfortunately, (they’re) afraid to come forward, I guess, to speak. And I don’t blame them, because I think there would be some level of harassment towards them,” he said. “What I tell them is this isn’t anything against how we do things and the integrity of our election. It’s just to prove that it is accurate and works.”
Koering, who participated in the meeting virtually from Florida, seconded Houge’s experience on the canvassing board. He praised Erickson’s expertise in elections as renowned across the state and even nationally.
“I asked her eight ways to Sunday, questions of how I could cheat in the election, and she had an answer for every single question I had,” Koering said. “I am personally very confident, and if any of my constituents or any residents of Crow Wing County call me and say, ‘Hey Paul, do you think that the voting system here is sound?’ I would have no hesitation to tell them that I believe it is very sound.”
Koering said his confidence is in Crow Wing County, and he didn’t feel equipped to say whether elections were proper in other locations, offering Minneapolis as an example. He said he hopes an audit would leave people satisfied but added in pretty much every issue, there will be some who remain skeptical.
“There’s people that are skeptical about government and think that we should be operating without government, which we can’t,” Koering said. “I mean, we’d have chaos. We’d have a society where everybody would be walking around robbing people and it would be chaos.”
When asked whether he personally believed President Joe Biden won the election, Koering replied, “Well, the Electoral College voted him in, so he’s the president. It’s time to move on.”
Barrows, the lone dissenter, reiterated in the six meetings the board’s heard from this group, he’s yet to hear a clearly defined request. He pointed to the wide array of points aired at meetings, ranging from questions about how long it took certain election judges to deliver results in Crow Wing, to audits in other states, to unproven claims of results switching in Dominion Voting Systems machinery.
“I would assume the secretary of state’s going to look at it and say the same thing, ‘We don’t know what they want,’” Barrows said. “ … ‘Well, what are they asking for?’ I would think that would be one of their first questions. And I don’t think the resolution tells them.”
Barrows said he believes the resolution sends the wrong message to election judges and county staff.
“I believe they do an outstanding job, second to none, and I don’t want to send that type of message to them,” he said. “I’m not sure that that’s going to be heard now because of the vote. But I personally will not sign on to something that disenfranchises or makes it look like there was potentially something wrong with the process they ran.”
Barrows said the questions before the board reflect a national conversation, one he finds unfortunate.
“I think it’s quite apparent that someone or some group has opened the idea that if you don’t prevail in a race, that somehow that race was stolen. And I think this is the first extremely active period where that’s come out in the open so much that it’s causing a division within the country,” Barrows said. “It’s unfortunate that people — and I don’t believe it’s a majority — but they have a loud voice. They feel empowered to question it in ways that to me are disrespectful in some manners, and aren’t willing to participate in the process that verifies the credibility of our election process, so that they do have confidence in the process.”