Mary's Election Posse

Kiffmeyer's "friends and family" election observer corps stirs controversy

City Pages Staff

published: October 27, 2004

Two election-related stories broke on local newscasts on Friday, October 15. In the more visible of the two, the state GOP filed suit over an allegedly disparate number of Democratic election judges in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. The partisan imbalance in the rolls of election judges in these counties raised doubts about the fairness of the election, GOP representative Mindy Tucker-Carlson told reporters. "You need people to have faith in the system," the Associated Press quoted her as saying. "For people to have faith in the system they need to think it's fair. They need to trust the vote tabulation that comes out." Critics of the suit were quick to point out that no one had criticized the performance of the state's election judges, Democrat or Republican, in previous elections. This partisan litmus test for election administrators, they said, was a capricious and unnecessary gesture on the part of Republicans.

That same day, Minnesota's Republican secretary of state, Mary Kiffmeyer, convened a training session for an apparently Republican-dominated group of volunteer election observers recruited to visit polling places as representatives of the secretary's office. The gathering drew criticism from Democrats and progressive get-out-the-vote groups for a variety of reasons.

First, as far as anyone could tell, no previous Minnesota secretary of state had ever recruited and deputized citizen observers in this manner. "We never recruited people to do poll-observing in Minnesota," says former DFL Secretary of State Joan Growe, "and I've never heard of it.

"The secretary of state has, under the law, the authority to let people go to the polls as representatives of the office," Growe continues. "But while I was serving, I didn't ever see a circumstance under which I needed to have partisan people--or independent people, if they are--go in and observe what the election administrators were doing. I have observed elections in many foreign countries as a polling observer, but I've never thought it necessary to authorize people from the secretary of state's office to observe elections in Minnesota." (Bert Black, the SoS's legal counsel, said last Friday that "I don't know" whether such observers had been used in Minnesota in the past.)

The observer training session was not preceded by any public announcement that volunteers were being sought, and the great majority of attendees appeared to be Republicans or recipients of Republican-friendly e-mail lists. According to a Pioneer Press story published the next day, Kiffmeyer's press officer, Kent Kaiser, said the volunteers were "recruited from among relatives and friends of Kiffmeyer's employees [and that]... the e-mail circulated among some organizations, including the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, a conservative lobbying group."

The secretary of state's office, and several of the volunteer observers contacted by City Pages, say that the volunteers will be visiting polling places only to complete a checklist involving issues such as handicapped access, and won't be mounting voter challenges. But this year's heated presidential race, along with a history of past allegations of partisanship on the part of the secretary of state's office, has left many suspicious about Kiffmeyer's citizen brigade. Those concerns were hardly allayed by the manner in which the training session was conducted. Although the secretary of state's office had indicated it would use 60 such observers, some attendees who spoke to City Pages said they counted only about 30 people at the training session.

Despite this seeming shortfall, said one uninvited attendee, an additional half-dozen or so people who showed up for the session, including members of the Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action, were told that they could observe the training and sign up for future volunteer work, but could not serve as observers in this year's election--or even receive the information packets given to participants. According to attorney Amy Gavel, "I counted all the people who had stickers on, and I only counted 29. It's possible there were a couple people that I didn't see, but there was nowhere near 60." Both Gavel and Meighan Stone, the communications director for the Democrat-friendly Americans Coming Together, say they tried to enroll for the training in advance but were turned away. "Many calls were made [to Kiffmeyer's office] from many different organizations to be added to the possible list [of observers]," says Stone. "They were told that it was full. We were told we could observe."

Kent Kaiser says, "I know that they recruited 60 [volunteers]. I don't know how many were actually at the training session. I know that they were planning to send out 30 teams of 2 people, and some of the folks are our staff. They may not have been at the training session."

The people named on the secretary of state's list include nine non-election-division employees of the secretary of state's office, at least four attorneys, several small-business people, a beauty pageant director, a Stillwater school board member, a member of the Moundsview Charter Commission, subscribers to the Taxpayers League e-mail list, home-schoolers, and signers of GOP petitions.

 

Among the more notable:

  • Nancy Bischoff is the Goodhue County co-chair of the Bush/Cheney campaign. Bischoff, who was not able to attend the training for personal reasons and will not serve as an observer on November 2, also attended the Bush inauguration in 2001 with Ralph and Mary Kiffmeyer, and is listed at Republican Minnesota Congressman John Kline's website as his office's outreach coordinator.

  • Wendell and Roberta Brown were the founders of the Berean League, an organization that was later renamed the Minnesota Family Council. According to "Twenty Years of Fighting for Families," a history of the group posted at the MFC website, the League was initially formed in reaction to the Minnesota Council of Churches' 1982 decision to support the repeal of Minnesota's anti-gay sodomy laws. The Browns and other conservative Christians banded together to fight the repeal. "The League provided an undeniable voice that the legislature heard," the history notes, "and it was successful in helping defeat efforts to repeal the sodomy law in 1983." The Minnesota Family Council's mission, simply put, is to get religion into politics, or, in the words of MFC president Tom Prichard, "to defend Minnesota families by upholding Judeo-Christian principles in the public arena."

Prichard's formulation echoes a statement the group's media rep made to the Minnesota Daily back in 1998: "We're interested in rolling back the liberal agenda," liberal ideas being defined as those which "chip away at the promotion and preservation of traditional Judeo-Christian principles in our society." The speaker was Kent Kaiser, who is now, of course, Mary Kiffmeyer's media rep.

In addition, a preliminary search of state and federal campaign contribution records turned up 10 contributions by list members: eight to Republicans, two to Democrat-turned-Independence Party tax hawk Tim Penny, and none to Democrats. Of those volunteer observers reached by City Pages, most declined to name their party affiliation, though eight said they were Republicans, three called themselves Democrats, and two Independents. One Republican volunteer grew angry at the question: "I know where you're going with this," he said. "You people need to express an interest in doing things like this, and then you'll be contacted!"

Javier Morilla, a St. Paul activist who is working with the AFL-CIO's voter protection program, might disagree. He was one of the unregistered attendees who turned up at the training session only to be told his services weren't needed, but that he could observe the training and volunteer in future elections. "You do not hire people by sending e-mails to your friends and family," he says. "It's the definition of cronyism. If you're going to recruit [public] volunteers, then a certain process ought to be followed."

 

CP staffers Corey Anderson, G.R. Anderson Jr., Paul Demko, Beth Hawkins, Steve Perry, and Molly Priesmeyer contributed to this story.