Voter Games

CP'S voter sign-up "scandal": Conspiracy? Friends having a laugh? What's the difference?

Last week in this spaceI wrote about the prospect of vote-counting error and fraud in the system of e-voting terminals around the country. The so-called "Diebold factor" is one kind of threat to the integrity of this fall's vote, but the Scary Machines story obscures one of the broader and more mundane narrative lines in any election: who gets to the ballot box in the first place, and how they are facilitated or hindered on their way.

Recently City Pages found itself embroiled in a controversy over exactly this point. Our story begins at the State Fair, where the paper always rents a booth. One of its featured promotions this year involved a drawing for a free trip to Iceland, which one entered by signing a purely symbolic and nonbinding slip of paper that said, "I will vote." Voter-registration volunteers were on hand to sign up anyone who cared to register while there. Our promotions people thought it an obvious gesture for an election year.

Not in the eyes of all, however. On Friday, August 27, the lobbyist and agitator David Strom, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, issued a press release claiming that the City Pages voting promotion was in all likelihood against the law. He quoted directly the relevant paragraph of the federal code, which outlaws paying persons to register or to vote.

No word of it reached us at the paper until Monday afternoon, when we got by fax a letter from Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer herself. It opened by informing us that David Strom of the Taxpayers League had asked her office to look into what we were doing--a weird detail in itself: What is the point in explaining why the secretary of state's office is commenting on election law? Kiffmeyer went on to write: "I think your...promotion, regrettably, may be in violation of federal law."

Kiffmeyer's tone was solicitous. She went on to offer the services of her staff in helping us craft more, uh, legal promotions in the future. But there was also no question that the practical effect of heeding her advice would be to shut down our present voter registration effort at the Fair. (Which, by the way, yielded a whopping dozen or so new voters; nearly everyone who visited professed to be registered already.)

We contacted the paper's attorney. Since no one had to register to vote to enter the drawing for the Iceland trip prize, that prize could hardly constitute a payment for registering to vote, could it? He agreed. We continued the promotion and shook our heads at the lengths to which Strom, no admirer of City Pages, had gone this time.

The Star Tribune published a metro-section page 2 story about the episode on Tuesday, August 31, that detailed Kiffmeyer's letter and Strom's complaint, while also noting that City Pages had named Strom the local villain of the year in its 2004 Best-of issue three months previously. The response to the Star Tribune story began by 9:00 a.m. and continued through the day--a steady stream of calls and e-mails, the majority congratulating us for registering people to vote or for standing up to what some called Republican intimidation tactics.

Readers called and wrote. Radio stations wanted to speak to our publisher, Mark Bartel, on the air. Writers from the Duluth News Tribune and Mankato Free Press called to make inquiries. Last, but not least, a local political figure of some renown phoned with what seemed to be an oblique tip: It might be useful to make an open records request under the state's Data Practices law to examine any communications that had passed back and forth between Strom and the secretary of state's office. We filed the request on Thursday afternoon, and by the end of the day it had been fulfilled, with the contents of one e-mail exchange.

At this point our story becomes a whodunit.

 

Last Thursday morning,when City Pages reporters initially contacted David Strom and the secretary of state's press liaison, Kent Kaiser, both indicated that the secretary of state's office had learned of Strom's complaint through the Taxpayers League press release, which, Strom explained, had been e-mailed to a media contacts list that included Kaiser's address. Strom told reporter Mike Mosedale that he had been tipped to the possible illegality by a fairgoing acquaintance he refused to name. Asked to respond directly to a claim that he had been told of the City Pages promotion by someone in state government, Strom denied it emphatically. He claimed he had never regarded his complaint as a very serious matter: "To be perfectly blunt, we were having a little fun at City Pages' expense--I was--based on my understanding that City Pages was doing something that was arguably against the law. How do I look at that violation of the law? Probably something a little worse than jaywalking, but I certainly wouldn't want anyone to go to jail for it."

But later that same day, when City Pages received Kaiser's speedy reply to its open records request, it contained a single e-mail thread--dated August 26, the day before Strom issued his press release--that seemed to contradict Strom's and Kaiser's earlier accounts.

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