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Election skepticism part of Crosslake’s push to handle absentee ballots

Crosslake Mayor Dave Nevin, right, speaks during a town hall-style meeting Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, upstairs at Moonlite Bay Restaurant and Bar in Crosslake. Residents Robin Sylvester, left, and Sonia Slack listen as they present on the topic of absentee ballot administration to a crowd of about 30 people.
Chelsey Perkins
/
KAXE
Crosslake Mayor Dave Nevin, right, speaks during a town hall-style meeting Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, upstairs at Moonlite Bay Restaurant and Bar in Crosslake. Residents Robin Sylvester, left, and Sonia Slack listen as they present on the topic of absentee ballot administration to a crowd of about 30 people.

The Crosslake City Council will discuss the possibility of administering absentee ballots again at a 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 12, special meeting in Crosslake City Hall.

CROSSLAKE — Crosslake may soon be the first Crow Wing County city committed to administering its own elections this year, including all absentee ballots.

Having declared its intent to do so in a 4-1 vote late last year, the City Council will discuss the possibility again at a 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 12, special meeting in Crosslake City Hall.

The reasons for the change, according to the citizen-led effort, are increased election security and emergency preparedness, along with more trust and transparency in the process.

“Bottom line is that we want to have custody here locally,” said Crosslake resident Robin Sylvester during a recent town hall-style meeting. “I’m super excited to see how many more people that don’t vote, might come in and vote in person because it’s local.”

Questions remain about the impact of such a decision, however, including staff and volunteer needs, the total cost to taxpayers and whether new equipment must be purchased. City Clerk Char Nelson, who’s worked for the city for more than two decades, told council members she opposes the change.

“The process works as it is,” Nelson said in a Wednesday phone interview. “The county does a good job.”

Typically, when residents opt to vote by absentee, they either mail the ballot to the Crow Wing County Elections Office or drop it off in person at the Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse. The ballots are processed there.

The Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse is lit up on election night 2022.
Chelsey Perkins
/
KAXE
The Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse is lit up on election night 2022.

In the 2018 and 2022 midterm elections, about a quarter of the county’s voters cast absentee or mail ballots. In 2020 — amid the COVID-19 pandemic and more precincts voting by mail — the number jumped to 60%.

If the change in Crosslake moves forward, the city must demonstrate to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office by July that it meets the technical requirements to handle the election on its own.

Crosslake Mayor Dave Nevin said he knows very little about election administration, relying on information supplied by the residents pushing for the change. But he said he supports the effort to regain local control.

“I will support anything that people want to do,” Nevin said in a Tuesday interview. “And this always struck me as taking a little bit back, and I support that wholeheartedly.”

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‘We could lose our freedoms’

Nevin’s comments came at Moonlite Bay Family Restaurant and Bar in Crosslake, where residents Sylvester and Sonia Slack led a discussion on the topic. Nevin said he’s hosted town hall-style gatherings before on various matters impacting the city.

“I kind of left this meeting up to the girls,” Nevin said. “I said I would call it and I’ll have it, but it’s up to you guys to do it.”

Slack first brought the matter to the City Council in December 2023, reading prepared remarks and presenting a draft resolution for the city to declare its intent to administer absentee voting and establish a ballot board.

The resolution was based on a template created by the citizen group Anoka County Election Integrity Team, which nodded to Crosslake’s efforts in a late January presentation in the city of Oak Grove.

The resolution templates are available for download at the website Project Minnesota run by Erik van Mechelen, who lost the 2022 Republican primary for secretary of state. Van Mechelen is no stranger to Crow Wing County, where he’s documented citizen efforts seeking election audits, including in a self-published book arguing for a return to paper ballots.

Robin Sylvester, in the center at the front of the room,
Chelsey Perkins
/
KAXE
Robin Sylvester, in the center at the front of the room, speaks to a group of about 30 people about moving absentee ballot administration back to Crosslake during a Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, meeting upstairs at Moonlite Bay Family Restaurant and Bar in Crosslake.

Sylvester joined Slack in presenting the issue again in January. Both have appeared several times before the County Board to raise election-related concerns in recent years, and Sylvester ran unsuccessfully for a county commissioner seat in 2022.

“Without our control in our elections, you guys, we could lose our freedoms,” Sylvester told the crowd of about 30 people on Tuesday. “This is the foundation.”

The informal gathering, Nevin added, was intended to collect resident feedback on behalf of the City Council ahead of Monday’s special meeting.

“We need to hear it locally. We need to hear whether you support it, or you think we’re crazy,” Nevin said. “But we need to hear it loud.”

Security, trust and party balance

Slack and Sylvester handed attendees a five-page document, including voter statistics and the reasons they say the city should assume absentee ballot management. Beyond security and transparency, they highlighted the Council’s role as the city’s canvassing board. Election results are not official until they have been reviewed and certified by a canvassing board.

“More local internal controls for voter registrations and tallying the votes will give you confidence that you will be able to perform your mandated [canvassing] duties with conviction,” the handout stated.

The document also characterizes new elections laws in the state as leading to inflated voter rolls and increases in absentee and mail voting. Voters need to be able to trust the system, Slack said. She added she’s motivated by another issue, too: political party balance among those handling ballots, or the lack thereof.

Slack said she recently learned of an exception to the state law requiring election judges of differing political parties to work together to accept or reject absentee ballots. The exception allows trained deputy county auditors or city clerks to serve on a ballot board without declaring a party.

Crosslake resident Sonia Slack, right, discusses her reasons she believes Crosslake should administer its own absentee ballots during a Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, town hall-style meeting at Moonlite Bay Family Restaurant and Bar in Crosslake. Resident Robin Sylvester, left, and Mayor Dave Nevin also stand at the front of the room.
Chelsey Perkins
/
KAXE
Crosslake resident Sonia Slack, right, discusses her reasons she believes Crosslake should administer its own absentee ballots during a Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, town hall-style meeting at Moonlite Bay Family Restaurant and Bar in Crosslake. Resident Robin Sylvester, left, and Mayor Dave Nevin also stand at the front of the room.

Slack repeatedly told the group that Crow Wing County takes advantage of this exception. She noted that doesn’t necessarily mean the county has nefarious intentions, but party balance makes everyone more trusting.

“I think that’s unacceptable, and we would want Crosslake to do more than the minimum standard and guarantee party balance,” Slack said. “So that everybody, no matter what party you’re from, you can have confidence that two people are agreeing.”

First established after the 2008 election, absentee ballot boards are tasked with accepting or rejecting absentee ballots based on requirements in law, including whether identification numbers or signatures match between applications and ballot envelopes.

When Election Day moves closer, board members separate internal secrecy envelopes containing the ballots from the larger ones identifying voters. They begin processing accepted ballots in tabulators, although results are not tallied until the polls close on election night.

No one from Crow Wing County’s elections office attended Tuesday’s gathering. Reached Friday, Elections Administrator Deborah Erickson said the county’s administration practices differ from Slack’s characterizations.

“Crow Wing County has made it a practice to use election judges of different political parties on the absentee ballot board to do the accepting and rejecting process,” Erickson wrote in a statement. “ ... While the law does allow deputy auditors, it has been our practice to have election judges do this task.”

In the room

That isn’t what Nevin, Council Member Sandy Farder or the others present Tuesday night heard, however. Several questions and comments came from the audience, and most answers were handled by Sylvester and Slack. Among those speaking up and offering support, several said they did not live in Crosslake.

Two Roosevelt Township supervisors encouraged the city to move forward on the issue.

“Because of what you’re doing, we’re looking at doing the paper ballots,” said Supervisor Sonya Crocker. “ ... I commend you for what you’re doing, because maybe Crosslake is going to be that catalyst.”

A round of applause followed, with Nevin being the first to clap.

Farder said the reason the topic resonates with her is because she doesn’t understand the resistance to the change, including from the county.

“Why would anyone care that we want to count our own ballots?” Farder asked. “That’s just my own — it makes me more interested, because it feels like it shouldn’t really be an issue.”

“I can answer that question,” replied Mark Olson of Brainerd, another frequent participant in local government public forums. “ ... I’m in contact with quite a few of the commissioners at the County Board, and it’s about control.”

Meeting attendees listen to a presentation about absentee ballot administration in Crosslake at a Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, meeting. Among those present was Council Member Sandy Farder, third from left.
Chelsey Perkins
/
KAXE
Meeting attendees listen to a presentation about absentee ballot administration in Crosslake at a Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, meeting. Among those present was Council Member Sandy Farder, third from left.

“They got a little nervous, didn’t they?” Nevin replied, referencing the County Board discussion about the city's intentions.

“Oh, they’re more than nervous,” Olson said.

Slack said local control of elections shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and she hopes more municipalities will consider what’s proposed in Crosslake.

“It has become a partisan issue, and I don’t understand why,” she said. “Somebody tell me why no party balance is OK. To me, that’s where it ends the conversation, right there.”

'Let's keep this politically neutral'

When Slack noted some people are wondering why the city should bother, given the trend in election laws, attendee Bob Frey said he could address that question.

“If Trump gets elected, he’s going to change the voting laws. He’s going to change the rules. We’re going to change everything,” said Frey, a member of the Crosslake Public Works/Cemetery/Sewer Commission.

“ ... This election cycle is incredibly important to get the right people elected. And we should have a drive — people talk to people — so they’ll come out and vote for the right person. Whoever your person is, hopefully it’s conservative.”

“Let’s keep this politically neutral, though,” Nevin interrupted.

Crosslake resident Pat Netko spoke up and added she’s heard the two speak about the issue before, and their goal isn’t partisan. Netko regularly attends City Council meetings and has participated in various committees.

Crosslake resident Bob Frey offers his opinion on the 2024 election during a Tuesday, Feb. 6, town hall-style meeting about absentee ballot administration.
Chelsey Perkins
/
KAXE
Crosslake resident Bob Frey offers his opinion on the 2024 election during a Tuesday, Feb. 6, town hall-style meeting about absentee ballot administration.

“This is, ‘Your vote needs to count, we want it counted in the right way, and we need to do it here,’” Netko said. “So it doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat or liberal or on the marijuana party.”

Minutes later, Brainerd resident Tony Bauer added that party affiliation aside, he’s concerned about governing bodies relinquishing authority to other bodies.

“[It] brings it one step further away from transparency and accountability,” said Bauer, who often comments in local public meetings.

“Hear, hear. ... I’ve been the mayor for three terms here. I’ve got no business being the mayor, but nobody can get up here and wants to do it,” Nevin replied. “You know, we’ve got to get involved. Everybody does, in whatever capacity you can. ... And this is one more thing that we can do to take back a little bit.”

Two other attendees suggested some in the room might be interested in joining Tactical Civics, a group they described as aiming to take the people’s power back from governments.

“What you’re talking about tonight is exactly that, and it’s basically our duty as people — those are our responsibilities, but we gave it all away,” said a woman.

The man seated next to her said nine people have joined the Crow Wing County chapter of the organization thus far with a goal of 350 members.

“Once other counties in the state get their numbers up and then in the nation, then as a whole, we can go back to the grand jury and take control of our counties,” he said.

As part of the discussion, Robin Sylvester responded that she is also a member of Tactical Civics.

“Do you see my name on your list?” Sylvester asked.

The organization says its first mission objective — according to information listed on the “About” page of a private Facebook group — is to restore militia in every county and deploy citizen grand juries, which would arrest and prosecute “lawless public servants.”

“‘We the People’ are the solution,” the website states. “This republic of sovereign States, founded in the Name of Jesus Christ and blessed for centuries, is now under Communist occupation by D.C., Beijing, and many state palaces.”

Just one commenter Tuesday spoke up to express doubts, after Nevin implored those who might be intimidated to share their thoughts.

Crosslake resident Peter Graves, member of the city’s Parks and Recreation/Library Commission, said he thought local control made sense in larger communities. But if administration is divided among dozens of smaller places, he said it could potentially lead to more confusion or problems.

“I’m not sure it’s a great solution for what I don’t know is a problem,” Graves said.

“It’s not about efficiencies, it’s about transparency and possession. And it’s about involvement, community involvement,” Nevin replied. “ ... If the citizens are willing to really take the burden of this on and do it, why would you stop them?”

Chelsey Perkins spent the first 15 years of her journalism career as a print journalist, primarily as a newspaper reporter and editor. In February 2023, she accepted a role as News Director of KAXE in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, where she's building a new local newsroom at the station.