Election Day's Checkpoint Charlies

One nation, under surveillance: A GOP election observer in Minneapolis
Diana Watters

Among victorious Republicans across the country last Tuesday, surely one of the biggest grins anywhere was the one worn by Mary Kiffmeyer. Minnesota's secretary of state made it through Election Day without any of the major snafus that had been feared and sometimes predicted in the weeks and months before the election--names disappearing on a wholesale basis from registration rolls, hours-long waits at polling places that would serve to discourage people from voting--and she could not have been more chipper when she met the press.

Shortly before 9:00 p.m., Kiffmeyer told the media gathered outside her office that voter turnout was likely to exceed 70 percent. (It did, eventually reaching a fairly staggering 77 percent.) She was aware of some sporadic technical problems and disputes, but beyond that, Madam Secretary reported, "nothing extraordinary" had happened.

It's no secret why the scrutiny toward Kiffmeyer had been so intense, aside from the divisiveness of the presidential campaign. Kiffmeyer had been one of only nine secretaries of state in the entire U.S. to go along with new standards required by the 2002 Help America Vote Act. Her office implemented new voter-registration requirements that many cried were too much, too soon. Because of this, challengers and attorneys from both parties (an estimated 600 from the GOP and 900 from the DFL) were out in full force as never before, along with the members of various voting-rights watchdog groups.

If Kiffmeyer can call the 2004 election a success under such a glare, then she deserves partial credit for another legacy of Election 2004: an unmistakable rise in ballot-box paranoia in Minnesota, despite a long-heralded history of skullduggery-free elections.

While the sum of the various antagonisms that played out on November 2 is obviously much larger than the role played by Minnesota's chief election official, it's fair to say that the secretary upped the ante statewide with a number of moves. Besides insisting on the implementation of the controversial and untested HAVA standards, Kiffmeyer was the repeated object of charges that her office was playing partisan politics by a variety of means.

This was most notable in the rules and standards it sought to promulgate and the legal questions it raised over the months preceding the election, which many observers considered a means of making it harder for new voters to understand the system and get themselves registered to vote. In mid-October, Kiffmeyer's office convened a training session to deputize volunteer "election observers" whose ranks were made up, by the SoS office's own admission, of friends and family of Kiffmeyer staffers and subscribers to the Taxpayers League of Minnesota e-mail list.

Then, at the end of October, a little-noticed scuffle ensued that again originated with a Kiffmeyer measure. During the final hours of the 2004 legislative session, a bill had been passed that was described as a "housekeeping" measure from the secretary's office. But the law, which required journalists to get a letter of approval to enter a polling place and limited the amount of time they could be present to 15 minutes, was widely believed to be one of the most restrictive such laws in the country. Local media organizations protested, and on October 27 Attorney General Mike Hatch's office issued an opinion saying that county auditors could grant countywide or "blanket" access to reporters covering the election from polling places. Even so, most county auditors declined to do so.

While many precincts sailed through November 2 without any hassles, there were plenty of polling places where conflicts arose. Many of them involved complaints against volunteers from the MoveOn PAC (see "The Battle of Kenwood Hill"). The most striking difference at many polling places this year was a newfound hostility toward scrutiny--by the press or other observers--on the part of some election officials and partisan challengers, particularly in Republican-friendly enclaves around the Twin Cities metro.

Election officials in charge of the state's polling places were more cautious than ever. At one church in Woodbury, CP staffer Paul Demko was allowed inside the polling place for a strictly monitored 15 minutes, but the election judge forced him to stand in a corner so that he would follow the letter of the law--at least six feet away from any voter or election official. When his allotted time was up, he was asked to conduct his interviews in the street, considerably farther than 100 feet from the voters' entry.

In Shorewood, I was told by the city clerk that because the polling place was on public property--at Shorewood City Hall--I couldn't be there at all. Eventually, after asking to review the law in question with the clerk, I was allowed to conduct interviews in the parking lot. At another polling place, in a north Minneapolis church, a GOP challenger summoned the election judge from the basement to complain that a CP photographer and I had come in briefly from the rain to check our notes. In the parking lot outside Deephaven City Hall, I was accused by one suspicious voter of writing down license plate numbers (I wasn't).

At Excelsior Elementary School, I received permission from the election judge to stand outside the main entrance and talk to people who had already voted. While I was speaking to one 24-year-old woman who had voted for Bush, a challenger interrupted us to insist I couldn't talk to voters. The woman protested, showing the challenger her "I voted" sticker and saying she had no problem with talking to me. The challenger then insisted that I had to leave. I refused, and told him he was free to contact the secretary of state's office. He left and returned with a copy of the statute. After reading it line by line, he finally concluded that I was within the law--and proceeded to stay close by and watch me conduct interviews for another 20 minutes or so.

I know better than to expect much public sympathy as a member of "the media," but that begs the more basic question: Who gains from a voting culture in which it's deemed acceptable for judges and partisan challengers to try to deflect public scrutiny? Despite the relatively smooth election this time out, the answer is not moot.

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