Last week in this space I 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.
In the first message, Kaiser's assistant Shaun Denham writes to Strom, "David, Kent asked me to send you the citations on providing things of value for voter registration. 42 USC1973 Let me know if you have any other questions."
Five minutes later, Strom writes back: "I don't see any reference to providing things of value being prohibited. Could you show me? DS."
Denham replies: "It is under subchapter c," which he goes on to quote.
Besides conflicting with the claims of both Strom and Kaiser about how the matter first came to the attention of the secretary of state's office, the e-mail exchange may leave some other questions as well.
Could it possibly matter, for instance, from a legal or political standpoint whether it was Strom or Kaiser who raised the subject first? Yes. The same section of the federal code that Strom accused City Pages of "probably" violating has this to say as well: "No person, whether acting under color of law or otherwise, shall...intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any person for urging or aiding any person to vote or attempt to vote." More plainly put, it is illegal to try to bully people into ceasing their lawful efforts to register people to vote. Statutes such as this seem rarely to be enforced, but the law remains the law.
Contacted about the seeming discrepancy in their memories, Strom and Kaiser both said they had forgotten speaking to each other about the matter before the press release was issued--even though their talk had occurred less than a week earlier, and had provided Strom with the statutory language that he subsequently quoted in his media alert.
In a cover note attached to the e-mail exchange, Kaiser wrote to reporter Paul Demko, "I had forgotten about a phone call that David Strom originally had made to inquire about the law--I passed along that inquiry to my assistant, Shaun Denham, and you can see the e-mail correspondence relevant to answering that inquiry."
Strom likewise told City Pages that he initiated the contact with the SoS's office, though his memory seemed less certain than Kaiser's: "I have to tell you this was a one-off thing for me. I think I called over there [the secretary of state's office] to confirm the law, because obviously I'm not a lawyer. I read the thing and it looked to me like there was a problem there. I called over, and said what's the law? I forget whether it was he [Kaiser] or someone else there that sent me something....
"I called him to get his advice on it, because after all he works for the secretary of state. At the end of the day, I don't know all the ins and outs of this stuff. He was a pretty natural guy to go to." But when reporter Mike Mosedale reminded Strom that he initially claimed the secretary of state's office must have learned of his complaint from the press release, he answered this way: "I might have called him up. He sure heard about it. I don't remember the specifics of it, to be perfectly blunt. This has not been the most significant moment in my life."
Now perhaps that is entirely true. Strom has his own reasons to spite City Pages. The public profile of Strom and the Taxpayers League grew when the local bus strike began last spring. On the third day of the stoppage, he was quoted thus in the Star Tribune: "Transit just isn't that important to the smooth functioning of the Twin Cities transportation system. That's the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the lack of chaos engendered by the bus-system strike.... The bus strike shows decisively that proponents of transit are simply not telling the truth when they say that transit ridership reduces congestion. It simply doesn't."
I quoted those words when City Pages published a package about the bus strike in early April, and pointed out that behind the straw man Strom knocked down--who says the main issue concerning mass transit is whether it makes the commute any faster for people in cars?--there lay the implication that anyone who could not get in a car and drive to work during the strike did not matter enough to discuss. (Strom claimed to favor a plan whereby the county would cash in the transit budget and buy used cars for poor people, but anyone who deems that a serious policy proposal, including Strom, is nuts.)
Strom called me. The conversation started out civil, even friendly. He came to his point succinctly: My conclusion amounted to climbing inside his head and purporting to know what he thought. I explained that while I was confident he didn't think in those terms privately (because hardly anyone does; a veneer is required), I still believed that what I wrote was a fair reading of the values reflected in his public statements, whether he cared to look at it that way or not.
Strom went to flashpoint very quickly. Began screaming. You are not in my head! You do not know what I think! Nope, I agreed. You are a fucking liar! Am not, I said. I told him to write a letter lodging his objection. We would publish it. That was not nearly good enough. You are not in my head! he repeated. Our colloquy went on this way for two or three more rounds. When I was sure I had the gist of what he was saying--specifically, the second or third time he called me a fucking liar--I hung up on him. I had not convinced him that my interpretation was legitimate from any angle of repose, but he had convinced me that inside his head was no place to be. A while later, one staff writer (no, not me) had the idea to name Strom local villain of the year in our Best-of issue.
Kent Kaiser likewise has a long record as public advocate for conservative causes, and particularly those of the religious right. In 1998, the year before he went to work in the secretary of state's office, he was quoted in a Minnesota Daily article speaking out against the use of student fees to pay for gay/lesbian and "radical" student organizations. "We're interested in rolling back the liberal agenda," Kaiser told the paper on behalf of the Minnesota Family Council, "liberal" notions being those that "chip away at the promotion and preservation of traditional Judeo-Christian principles in our society." He also served a nine-month stint at the local right-wing think tank Center of the American Experiment, in which capacity he served as editorial director of a 1999 report called the Minnesota Policy Blueprint. The MPB called for a smaller and substantially changed state government along more market-defined and business-friendly lines, not unlike the transformation the Pawlenty administration has since launched.
Kaiser's résumé as a conservative advocate also includes a history with the Taxpayers League of Minnesota and David Strom that dates back to the pair's days as students at Carleton College in Northfield. More recently, Kaiser worked for the Taxpayers League for a period of a few months before joining the secretary of state's office in 1999. And current Minnesota campaign finance board records list Kaiser as the chair of the Taxpayers League's Victory Fund, its political expenditures PAC. (This PAC apparently made three campaign contributions in the 2002 election cycle: one to conservative businessman and gubernatorial candidate Brian Sullivan, one to the Republican Party of Minnesota, and one to--Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer. Asked if he saw any conflict in overseeing PAC donations to his own boss, Kaiser replied, "I don't think so. We gave to a lot of different things, and that is a small amount of money. We spent much more on our advocacy for other individual candidates.")
David Strom maintains that it was his idea to make trouble for City Pages, and that he didn't take his own gesture very seriously. Even if this is so--and the apparent contradictions between Strom and Kaiser's stories and the e-mail record mean nothing--it remains the case that the object of Strom's "prank" was to get the secretary of state to fire a shot across City Pages' bow, which she did; and if we had heeded her warning, the result would have been to close down a voter-registration site, meager as its yield turned out to be. As one person asked me, is discouraging voter registration the proper role of the secretary of state?
No matter where the complaint against City Pages originated, the episode boiled down to two things: a dubious legal claim regarding voter registration by a conservative activist against a liberal newspaper, and the subsequent intervention of the secretary of state on behalf of this claim, even though her office had no jurisdiction over the federal statute in question.
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