Students may face felonies over illegal voter vouching

An election judge said students were vouching for people they did not know on Election Day.
November 08, 2010

Members of Students Organizing for America, a group of students aligned with the Democratic Party, may face a criminal investigation and possible felony charges after confrontations with an election judge over voter vouching during Tuesday’s election.

Ginny Gelms, the interim elections director in Minneapolis, said she will submit a report to the Hennepin County attorney’s office and the Minnesota Secretary of State‘s office today. The offices will investigate a possible incident of improper vouching.

Gelms said she was told by the University Lutheran Church precinct’s chair election judge there were two incidents of individuals trying to vouch for people they did not personally know.

Vouching is a way to prove residence for on-site registration on Election Day. If someone doesn’t have a proper form of ID or a bill with their current name and address on it, a voter registered in the same precinct may sign an oath that they personally know that the individual is a resident of the precinct.

Provisions for vouching and same-day registrations are outlined in Minnesota statues and rules. Violating rules in the chapter on registration eligibility of voters is a felony.

The election judge at University Lutheran was told some groups were congregating outside of the church.

After going outside to investigate, the judge came back inside and saw a group of "around 25 people" gathered close to the entrance, Gelms said.

The judge walked up to the group and heard one woman "directing individuals, dividing up the group … and assigning vouchers to groups."

Gelms said the judge asked a woman taking one of the groups to the polling place if she knew the individuals with her and the woman replied she didn’t, Gelms said.

The woman claimed she made a mistake and was just doing what Students Organizing for America told her to do, Gelms said.

Jeb Saelens, president of SOFA at the University of Minnesota, spent part of Election Night outside University Lutheran Church vouching for people turned away for lack of proper documentation.

Saelens, who was half a block away from the precinct when he heard about the incident, ran back to talk to the young woman, whom he identified as a volunteer for SOFA, but was told he could not speak to her. Saelens was asked to leave because he already reached the 15-person vouching limit for the day.

Saelens said the woman was "in tears … when this election judge was just drilling her, standing over her, yelling at her."

Chief Deputy County Attorney Pat Diamond could not specifically comment on the incident without seeing Gelms’ report, but said as long as there’s proven intent to violate law, vouching without knowing the voter is a felony.

The voucher has the right to remain silent, and if intent is not proven the case can’t go forward.

"Intent in a world where the defendant has a right to be completely silent can sometimes be a dicey thing," Diamond said.

Mike Griffin, an Organizing for America regional field director, was asked to leave the polling place earlier in the evening after arguing with the judge on whether he could vouch for an individual, Gelms said. Griffin declined to comment on the incident.

According to Gelms, the election judge was explaining proof of residence requirements to a voter in line to register and mentioned vouching as a possible option. The voter turned around and asked Griffin, who was next in line, if he would vouch for her, and Griffin agreed.

Based on this interaction, Gelms said the judge concluded the two didn’t personally know each other.

Griffin was unable to name the woman’s correct address and was told he could not vouch for her.

Griffin became "defensive," began "raising his voice, causing a disturbance" and continued to argue, despite warnings from the judge that he would be asked to leave, Gelms said.

As the judge escorted Griffin out of the building, he began to "drag his feet," Gelms said. The judge warned Griffin that police would be called if he did not leave. When Griffin did not comply, the judge got the church staff involved and called the police, Gelms said.

Saelens was entering the church to vouch for a friend when he saw the judge and Griffin "screaming" at each other.

Minneapolis police Sgt. Bill Palmer said two officers arrived to the polling place at 5:55 p.m. after receiving a request to remove a trespasser interrupting the voting process. The suspect was gone when the officers arrived, and no report was filed.

Improper vouching incidents are rare, Daimond said, and he could recall only one incident in the past.

Beth Fraser, director of governmental affairs at the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office, said vouching has been part of Minnesota’s voting system since 1973.

The majority of states do not allow same-day registration, Fraser said, and among those that do, only some allow vouching.

Gelms said the hectic atmosphere at the polling place could have contributed to the incidents. Of the almost 800 individuals who voted at the precinct, more than 500 were on-site registrations, she said.

"Registering people on an Election Day is ... one of the most involved and burdensome process that the judges do on Election Day," she said.

Same-day registration and vouching have been the target of criticism in the past.

Rep. Dan Severson, R-Sauk Rapids, who ran for Secretary of State this year, said vouching "leaves a huge vulnerability for the system."

"So are these election results credible?" Severson said, "I’ve got serious questions."

Both Gelms and Fraser said there have not been any other major incidents reported.

"It’s not necessarily the case that people who were ineligible to vote did," Gelms said. "I don’t have any evidence that that happened."

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