The next flashpoint in voter fraud alarmists’ crusade to overhype their claims may be coming in Minnesota, the most voter-friendly state in the country.
A conservative group has taken Minnesota’s secretary of state to court over his refusal to provide it with certain voter roll data that the group claims will show thousands or even tens of thousands of instances of voter fraud.
The group, Minnesota Voters Alliance, is not the first right-wing operation to wage a legal war to get voter roll data in the hopes of uncovering examples that official reviews of potential voter fraud have not found. But it exemplifies the resistance and backlash such efforts have provoked.
Minnesota Voters Alliance has been on a winning streak so far, with two lower court decisions ordering secretary of state Steven Simon to produce the withheld data. The state Supreme Court last month granted review of those decisions, which turn on the complexities of Minnesota’s public disclosure laws.
Underlying the current court battle over government transparency is a concern that the data will be misrepresented by the groups that obtain it and that releasing it will have a chilling effect on the franchise, while fueling GOP calls for restrictive election laws. Voting rights groups accuse MVA of trying to intimidate voters — particularly voters of color — by blasting out sensational claims.
In a phone interview with the TPM last month, MVA’s executive director Andy Cilek called the accusation “absurd” and said “we want ineligible voters suppressed.”
But he also admitted that he believed that once he obtained the data he could use it push changes to Minnesota’s election policies by showing “more concrete information and expos[ing] the issue.”
“In fact, I personally think that when these numbers come out it should almost warrant a special session of the legislature,” he said.
MVA initially requested the data from secretary of state Steve Simon in 2017, months before President Trump’s voter fraud commission embarked on its disastrous attempt to obtain voter roll information from every state in the country.
Conservative activists — working for far-right groups like Judicial Watch, American Civil Rights Union and Public Interest Legal Foundation — have been exploring this tactic under-the-radar for years. While their longstanding objective appears to be pressuring local election officials to more aggressively purge their voter rolls, the misleading reports they produce have also provided fodder for national Republicans looking to justify Trump’s baseless claims of “millions” of illegal voters.
Voting rights groups have pointed out the flaws in the activists’ methodology. Often initial indications that someone is on the voter rolls illegally can actually be explained by administrative error or by weaknesses in the techniques used to vet voter registrations.
For instance, in the case of Minnesota Voters Alliance, the legal dispute centers around data that records who has been marked internally on the voter rolls as challenged, i.e. who has been flagged as potentially ineligible to vote. Cilek has suggested the data will help him make the case that Minnesota should end its system of letting certain challenged voters vote once they sign declarations confirming their eligibility.
Voting rights advocates say that there are several reasons voters are inaccurately marked as challenged in Minnesota. For instance, ex-felons who have legally regained their right to vote may still be marked as challenged due to delays in the release of court records showing they’ve completed their sentences. So-called “snow birds” might appear challenged for residency issues because they are forwarding their mail to their vacation homes in the winter.
“It’s just not possible to request the information that the Minnesota Voter Alliance is asking for and be able to determinations on their own and claim that all these people are voting illegally,” said Nick Harper, the civic engagement of Minnesota’s League of Women Voters.
These dubious tactics have sometimes backfired on the voter alarmist groups themselves.
The Trump voter fraud commission got major pushback for its voter registration data requests and was ultimately dissolved after several lawsuits, including challenges to its data collection project, were brought against it.
PILF recently settled a defamation lawsuit it faced over its reports claiming thousands of alleged noncitizens had been removed form Virginia’s voter rolls. Its president, J. Christian Adams, who also served on Trump’s commission, had to apologize to individuals included in the reports who were in fact citizens, but nonetheless had their personal information published alongside claims they had potentially committed felonies.
The state of Texas also settled lawsuits challenging its sloppy data-match project that falsely suggested nearly 100,000 alleged noncitizens needed purging from the rolls.
Cilek, of the Minnesota group, told TPM he was aware of the lawsuit brought against PILF and said he wouldn’t make the same mistakes; he said he would not release personal information of registered voters unless they were convicted of fraud.
Nonetheless, he was vague when asked by TPM about how he would vet the data to find legitimate claims of illegal voters, as opposed to discrepancies that were caused by administrative errors.
Cilek told TPM the group was working on a list of “comprehensive ideas” but to “be able to, just off the top of my head, throw all that out there would be impossible.“
“It will be extensive, it will be thorough, we will be reaching out to many other people. we want to open it all up to public scrutiny,” Cilek said.
While their plans may be unclear, critics of MVA say there’s little doubt that the group will use the data to discourage certain communities from voting and to argue for more restrictive laws.
In the past, the MVA has unsuccessfully pushed for voter photo ID in the state, while opposing the expansion of voter registration opportunities. It’s advocated for restrictions on the voting rights of people under guardianship and for stricter rules for when ex-felons can vote. The group also recently filed a federal lawsuit seeking to strike down a Minneapolis city ordinance requiring that landlords provide voter registration opportunities to tenants.
“We can only imagine their intentions and that they’re looking for data to roll back voting rights, because it’s what they do,” said Kenza Hadj-Moussa, communications director of the progressive advocacy group Take Action Minnesota.
Minnesota — which has the highest voter turnout rate in the country — is a blue-leaning state, but one Hillary Clinton only won by roughly 45,000 votes.
“We are seeing right-wing groups push laws that undermine our democracy, that intimidate voters, that make it harder for poor people, black people, people of color to vote,” Hadj-Moussa said. “Minnesota Voter Alliance is one of those groups that have been pushing voter restrictions bills for years using every tool in the tool box.”