Former Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer may not be in the business of supervising elections anymore, but it doesn’t mean she and her friends have abandoned their old habits.
The “traditional values” organization of which Kiffmeyer is the executive director, Minnesota Majority, has been poking around Minnesota’s voter-registration file, and in a pair of letters to Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s office over the past week, MN Majority president Jeff Davis claims to have unearthed thousands of suspicious registrations in the state’s voter records.
TCDP EDITOR’S CORRECTION: Mary Kiffmeyer is no longer the director of Minnesota Majority, according to comments posted by various people to the Minnesota Independent article. TCDP called the office of the Minnesota Majority, and Dan McGrath said that the current president of Minnesota Majority is Jeff Davis, who founded the organization. McGrath said that Kiffmeyer worked as a consultant to Minnesota Majority in the past. The letters to the Secretary of State are signed by Minnesota Majority’s current president, Jeff Davis.
Last Friday Secretary of State Mark Ritchie held a press conference to address those issues and to debunk the implication that Minnesota’s electoral system — which has been acknowledged by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission as one of the best in the country — is rife with fraud and inaccuracy. The SoS office’s response elicited a second letter from Minnesota Majority that said, in effect, “not good enough.” (All the correspondence in the matter is reproduced in PDF format at the end of this story.)
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann, who responded to the letter in writing on behalf of the SoS’s office, tells MnIndy that such are a tactic to scare away voters. It’s a system created by Republican operatives that’s been in place for decades: Challenge voters in mostly minority areas or, as is the case with Minnesota Majority, launch a media campaign in an effort to allege voter fraud and limit political participation in strictly Democratic-leaning precincts. And Gelbmann notes that similar campaigns are springing up statewide as a partisan machination to suppress votes.
“It’s pretty clear that it’s a strategy by a number of groups to cast doubt about the integrity of our system,” Gelbmann says. “Yet Minnesota has one of the best systems for verification in the country. This is a very deliberate effort to start raising questions. Their aim is to keep people from voting.”
Yet even if Minnesota Majority’s claims appear specious at best, they are a likely harbinger of the kind of voter challenges that will come from organizations like Kiffmeyer’s on Election Day.
“Vacant addresses”: different from “vacant homes”
Kiffmeyer–the woman Hennepin County commissioner Mike Opat once called “probably the least competent person to hold this important office in Minnesota history—was voted out of SoS in 2006. She then joined Minnesota Majority as its executive director. [TCDP EDITOR’S NOTE: Mary Kiffmeyer is no longer the director of Minnesota Majority, according to comments posted by various people to the Minnesota Independent article. TCDP called the office of the Minnesota Majority, and Dan McGrath said that the current president of Minnesota Majority is Jeff Davis, who founded the organization. McGrath said that Kiffmeyer worked as a consultant to Minnesota Majority in the past.]
The religious-right organization is mostly dedicated to culture-war tubthumping; the “Issues” tab on its website includes “Illegal Aliens,” “Homosexual ‘Marriage’,” “Comprehensive Sex Education, “Embryonic Stem Cell Research” and “Climate Change.” The group is probably best known for a claim, published last year on its website, that Swedes had a lower infant mortality rate because they were “racially pure.” Kiffmeyer is now running for a state legislative seat in District 16B.
In the letter to Ritchie’s office, Minnesota Majority President Jeff Davis says the results of the organization’s analysis “suggest that there may be broad-based integrity problems in the Minnesota voter registration file.” Among the principal claims, Davis states that in 2004 and 2006 there were 10,099 voters in Anoka and Hennepin Counties who now reside at “vacant addresses.”
“Vacant addresses” is a nebulous term. After the 2004 election, Minnesota outlawed the practice of building voter caging lists compiled from returned mail sent by a political party. But the law does not preclude organizations like Minnesota Majority from using a special portion of the Postal Service’s database to challenge the validity of voter information, or from showing up at the polls to intimidate voters in urban communities.
Minnesota Majority says that in order to find voters living at “vacant addresses,” it used the United States Postal Service Delivery Sequence File (DSF2) to determine address verification. According to Anchor Computer, a company that sells DSF2 database system, the software is designed to reduce the mailing costs associated with undeliverable mail.
According to the company, addresses must exactly match those in the system to be verified, or they will be marked as “undeliverable” or “vacant address” by the DSF2 database. That means a single mailer, like a catalog, for example, with missing information such as an apartment number could be returned as “vacant address.” Furthermore, in a case study for a catalog mailer conducted by Anchor Computer, nearly 1 percent of the addresses on the catalogs received a “vacant address” error.
Gelbmann counters that if the 10,099 people in question voted in 2004 and 2006, then their registrations were verified by the SoS office. Whenever anyone registers, Gelbmann says, the county auditor’s office sends out a non-forwardable postcard to the registrant’s address to ensure they live at the listed address. If the postcard is returned to the county attorney’s office, the voter is challenged at the poll and required to show ID and address verification.
“One of the frustrations with Minnesota Majority’s claims is that they are reiterating the same claims they made last week without providing documentation,” says Gelbmann. ”We addressed their concerns last week and explained how the system works. We do not make public the names that will be challenged at the polls, but there are tens of thousands of people who are on are list who will be challenged and asked to provide verification. We have a long history of having one of the best systems for verification in the country,” he says. “People should not be concerned about voter fraud in Minnesota.”
A history of disenfranchising voters?
In 2004, right before the election, then-Secretary of State Kiffmeyer came under national scrutiny. In September of 2004, Kiffmeyer issued a press release outlining Minnesota’s plans — in conjunction with the Bush administration’s Department of Homeland Security — to combat “homicide bombers.” Included were what Kiffmeyer’s office said were telltale signs of a potential disruption or homicide bomber: cars “riding low with springs,” persons exuding “unexplained or unusual odors.” (”Smells may range from fruity/flowery,” the missive noted, “to sharp/pungent, garlic/horseradish-like, bitter almonds, peach kernels and new mown grass/hay.”)
As the Washington Post noted at the time, several election officials were outraged by the fliers the SoS’s office created, refusing to distribute them on the grounds that they discouraged voting and singled out voters of religious, racial, or ethnic groups for harassment.
That same year, Kiffmeyer also attempted to enact a law that would have forbidden Indians living outside a reservation to use their tribal cards to register to vote on Election Day. After a civil rights lawsuit was filed, Kiffmeyer eventually agreed to allow the tribal cards to be used.
Despite Kiffmeyer’s past or her organization’s current attempts at disenfranchising voters via, so far, mostly media blasts, Gelbmann says there’s a safety net in place to ensure all voters are legitimate, though he acknowledges nothing is foolproof.
“No system that’s trying to get 3.2 million people out to vote is error-free,” he says. The SOS’s office has a new campaign this year, 80 percent in ‘08. It’s hoping to have record voter turnout, despite attempts to halt the process. “There’s a lot of scare tactics out there, like people saying if your house is being foreclosed on you can’t vote,” Gelbmann says. “But that is entirely not true. And we hope everyone comes out and votes this year and sees this. [Minnesota Majority’s] aim is to keep people from voting. That’s why we held a press conference and brought our frontline employees to ensure everyone that this system is as good as any human system can be.”
The ACORN factor
While Gelbmann says people should not be concerned about voter fraud in Minnesota, there’s no doubt people on all sides of the political spectrum are indeed concerned. MnIndy’s sister site, Michigan Messenger, reported in September that a GOP official in that state affirmed a plan to challenge voters living at addresses for which there were foreclosure filings. The GOP official subsequently denied making the statement.
And there is further reason for real consternation. In 2004 in Ohio, a state that’s once again up for grabs and shows all signs of becoming contentious, the GOP sent out “do not forward” mailers. The returned mail resulted in more than 35,000 voters being challenged.
Gelbmann acknowledges that the scandal surrounding voter registration efforts by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) has given more visibility to partisan scare rhetoric about vote fraud. John McCain recently called the nonprofit organization, whose voter-registration program turned up fake voters, a “threat to the fabric of our democracy.” The organization has admitted that some voter-registration forms it collected throughout the country are invalid.
Gelbmann says that here in Minnesota, in 2006, ACORN was also paying its employees for each new voter-registration form they collected. The result was that false voter-registration cards were created for people who don’t exist. Yet Gelbmann says that those voters have either been removed or added to the “challenge” list after cards sent by the respective county auditor’s offices were returned.
“ACORN was paying people for every voter they registered,” Gelbmann says. “Unfortunately, they had some people who were employed who weren’t very honest and created fake voter-registration cards out of an incentive to get paid. But that person isn’t going to try to vote. They don’t exist. The only reason they got on that list as a fake name is because someone wanted to make money.”
ACORN acknowledges some of its employees created false voter-registration cards. In a letter published this week by the San Francisco Chronicle, the chair of California ACORN, says, “the small percentage of problematic cards that we have submitted to local election boards in 2008 — and that we are required by law to submit, even cards that we can plainly see are invalid — will not result in any illegal voting, contrary to over-the-top partisan claims. The irony in these attacks is that our registration drive and get-out-the-vote program is nonpartisan.”
Yet ACORN wasn’t the only organization paying employees per new voter registration. Employees of an organization called Young Political Majors (YPM) were paid $7 to $12 per registered Republican voter, many of whom signed up, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, because they believed they were signing petitions for stricter penalties against child molesters.
As a result of these practices, in 2008 Minnesota made it illegal to pay for voter registrations. And Gelbmann reiterates that regardless of partisan politics and voter schemes, “phantom voters” will not be showing up to the polls and posing a threat to Minnesota’s voting system — because they simply don’t exist.