In My Beautiful Laundrette meets Back to the Future: Harris voter fraud shape-shifting story, Bluestem related the manner in which the woeful tale that former City of Harris Mayor Richard "Rick" Smisson shared with the Minnesota House Government Operations Committee on March 8, 2012, and with his lawyers in an amended federal lawsuit (12-CV-00519 DWF-LIB),filed on March 13, 2012, shifted in time from 2008 to 2006.
Two shooting scripts for Harris?
Depending upon which cut you view, Smisson was either an election judge in 2008 who noticed that "between 10 and 13 people showed up for same day registration. They all claimed that the local laundromat address as their residence" (legislative committee's cut) or a 2006 City of Harris mayoral candidate who believes that:
. . . .several individuals, upon information and believe, up to 10 persons, entered the polling place at the Harris City Hall and registered to vote, completing the necessary registration applications. The election judges became suspicious of the eligibility of the election-day-registrants because of the address each had given ― a laundromat located one block from the polling place. (Federal lawsuit 12-CV-00519 DWF-LIB cut) .
The lawsuit, which was filed by the Minnesota Voters Alliance et al, was lawsuit was subsequently dismissed in August, to much media attention. One fine review is Jim Ragsdale's Federal judge shoots down challenge to state's election system in the Star Tribune.
The plaintiffs have appealed the ruling, and although Smisson's narrative is no longer included in the text of the appeal, he and former City of Harris Council member Kathleen Olson remain as parties to the lawsuit, as do the Chisago County Auditor and Attorney, who were defendants in the first amended lawsuit.
In recent letters to the editor supporting the voter restriction amendment, state representative Tony Cornish and Donnolly, Minnesota, resident Steve Fults both cited the incident as proof that voter registration fraud occurred in 2010, although neither version of Smisson's narrative has the incident happening two years ago.
Minneapolis writer Robin Marty tweeted the high concept:
According to a source who read this morning's post, the Chisago County Attorney investigated the 2006 claim and found no irregularity. Federal District Court Judge Donovan Frank found in his decision that there was no misconduct by any of the named defendants, including this county attorney, and dismissed the case.
Wrong credit for the 2006 cast?
Trying to sort through the conflicting narratives that had the incident happening in 2006, 2008 and 2010 , Bluestem noted in our earlier post that the county auditor filed a sworn statement in the federal lawsuit that he could not remember a speaker phone conversation with Mayor Smisson and member of council Olson on Election Night 2006, and if such a conversation had taken place, he would have instructed Mr. Smisson and Ms. Olson to fill out a challenge form. Election judges are trained to do this. But neither Mr. Smisson nor Ms. Olson filled out the paperwork in 2006.
The dismissed federal lawsuit states:
An election judge contacted Smisson about the events occurring at the polling place. Upon Smisson’s arrival, and in another room away from the polling place, he and another election judge were able to determine that certain individuals who completed registration applications actually lived in towns outside of Harris. Also present were Plaintiff Kathleen M. Olson and City Clerk Jennifer Wolhe. Smisson contacted the Chisago County Auditor on that election day and again voiced concern about the unfolding events. On a speaker phone, allowing all present to hear, including Olson, the County Auditor told Smisson and those present, that those individuals of concern “had a right to vote that superceded” his issue regarding their eligibility to vote. Smisson and others present were further told by the County Auditor that any immediate challenge could not occur until after the election.Upon information and belief, the Chisago County Auditor did not report to the County Attorney the events Smisson or the election judges complained about regarding the election day registrants who used a Harris, Minnesota laundromat as a residency address, but lived outside of Harris, who cast ballots and had their ballots counted.
The city clerk's name appears to be a typo, and possibly also a miscasting. Jennifer Wothe served as Harris city clerk begin on December 21, 2006. Cambridge Star assistant editor Tesha Christensen reported in "Harris hires city clerk: Jennifer Wothe to begin Dec. 21":
Harris’s new city clerk will be Jennifer Wothe of Isanti.
The decision to hire Wothe was made following a lengthy city council meeting on Monday night, Nov. 27, 2006. At that meeting, the top three of 65 candidates were interviewed by the city council. . . .
Since letting go Kim Hugger in May, Harris has been contracting out its city clerk services.
Wothe will begin on Dec. 21, following a satisfactory background check and reference check.
Reached by phone, Wothe confirmed that she did not work for the City of Harris on Election Day 2006. She had no knowledge of the lawsuit and could not comment. In an odd twist of fate, Wothe was working in the Minnesota Secretary of State's office in November 2006--a fact confirmed by the Human Resources office at the Minnesota Department of Administration which stated in an email response to a query that Wothe worked in the SOS office from "2/22/2006 through 12/20/2006"-but she has absolutely no connection with this lawsuit. Wothe took a new position with the City of Clearwater in 2008.
Listing Wothe in the credits for the 2006 take is a misattribution.
It is unfortunate that Olson and Smisson's memories of Election Night 2006--presumably foggy after nearly five and a half years--place her on the scene and in the lawsuit. She is by all accounts a very able public employee. Were that human memory--and spelling--were as reliable.
Bluestem has sent an email to the city of Harris--its office is closed on Wednesdays--to find out who was the contract city clerk on Election night 2006. Unfortunately, the city's minutes and agendas online begin with January 2007. The permanent city clerk hire and contract position is mentioned an item in the January 8, 2007 City Council minutes under "Public Comment:"
d) Lisa Jorgenson, 42396 Ginger Avenue, restated her request for the cost of the hiring of the new city clerk. Also stated concerns of conflict of interest with Kathy Olson being the Interim City Clerk, a Councilmember and on the Planning Commission. Lastly, welcomed Councilmember John Pelant.
Who was the interim city clerk on Election Day 2006? We wait for the current clerk for the City of Harris to respond.
A call about the name of the Harris city clerk placed to the attorney of record on the Minnesota Voters Alliance lawsuit and appeal was not returned.
Harris, Minnesota's small town politics: a 2007 profile
Smisson's testimony to the state legislature and the lawsuit are not the first time he has brushed with a complaint about campaigns and elections. In a November 21, 2007 article, Last Call A small-town mayor with big-city ambitions sets off a major brouhaha in Harris, City Pages' staff writer Jonathan Kominsky writes of different complaint associated with Smisson and the 2006 elections in Harris: accusing a man who withdrew from the 2006 mayoral contest of taking a bribe ($400 and the promise of an appointment in the new administration) to withdraw from a three-way contest.
The tale begins on page three of the Kaminsky article, which as a whole chronicles the growing small town's growing pains under the Smisson administration, which began in 2005. The complaint made by Smisson's campaign manager was eventually dismissed; Kaminsky writes:
Naumann filed an election-tampering complaint with the state. A few days later, he and Stai had a teleconference with administrative judge Eric Lipman, who scheduled a hearing for the end of the month.
But Naumann wouldn't wait that long to spread the juicy story. Just two weeks before the election, he leaked the story to the two newspapers that cover Harris.
"Harris resident being investigated for dropping out of mayoral race," screamed the October 25, 2006, front-page headline in the Cambridge Star, which quoted generously from Naumann's complaint while neglecting to mention his role as the mayor's campaign manager.
Five days before the election, a three-judge panel dismissed the bribery charges as groundless. Noting that Naumann had produced only statements from himself and Smisson, the judges ruled that he'd "failed to put forward sufficient evidence."
Kaminsky's article continues:
But the ruling came too late to make the pre-election papers.
On election night, after weeks of door-knocking and a futile, last-minute effort to send out postcards to everyone in Harris announcing the election-tampering charges had been dismissed, Nelson's team of volunteers gathered at his house to await the results.
After a few tense hours of munching on pizza and potato chips, a phone call came from the election office. The room fell silent as Nelson took the call. When his face dropped, everyone knew. The final tally: 297-278. Mayor Smisson had won re-election off a 10-vote swing.
Standing in the corner with Kabanuk, Shelander couldn't contain himself. "We should get an injunction and get this thing stopped!" he bellowed.
Nelson disagreed. "The people have spoken," he said. "Let's not be sore losers."
Lisa Jorgenson, who volunteered for Nelson's campaign, has little doubt the scandal was a factor in the outcome.
"If I didn't know firsthand what was going on, and picked up a paper talking about bribery and shenanigans, you'd better believe it would have a very profound impact on my decision," she says.
Last call on the laundromat
Did voter registration fraud take place in 2006 or 2008 in Harris, Minnesota? The details seem less than definitive when Smisson himself can't place the year or the personnel--and filed no complaint at the time that he learned of the alleged mischief (whnever that was).
Nor did the other election judges who are alleged to have noticed the issue in 2006, when Smisson himself was a candidate for office.
Whatever the merit of Smisson's vision for the small town, the recession settled the issue, and Smisson didn't run for mayor again in 2008. By 2010, the city restructured Water Treatment Plant (WTP) and
Waste Water Treatment Facility (WWTF) financing with the Public Facilities Authority (PFA), the Star News reported in All avenues explored, says Harris mayor, even bankruptcy was explored. Smisson is now running for Chisago County Commissioner District 5 after finishing a distant second in the August 14 primary.
Is Smisson's tale the rock solid proof of fraud that those who retell and change the tale claim? Given that even Smisson can't nail down the deets, we don't think so--and in the absence of a formal complaint, whichever year in took place--it's hard be precise. A federal judge dismissed the claim, and the appeal of that dismissal leaves out this narrative.
Perhaps Tony Cornish could correct the misinformation about this incident that he spread in his "My View" column in the Mankato Free Press. This "incident" isn't as recent as 2010, and never was. Cornish shouldn't have to stretch it--perhaps to make the suspicion of fraud more immediate--and he ought not do so.
Perhaps one of the more entertaining things Bluestem has learned about this triple told tale (2006? 2008? 2010?) of the laundry voters is that the "laundromat" on Ginger Avenue just down the street from City Hall hasn't seen a load of clothes since some time before 2006.
Rather, as a source who declined to go on the record noted, it's been a property used as a residence for some time--though not, the source noted, for large numbers of people. The source didn't know when the laundry had closed, but observed that as is the custom in small towns, the property is still known as "the laundromat."
Update November 1: Via PACER, GAC math professor and student of election systems Max Hailperin has obtained and passed along the affidavits that were submitted in the dismissed federal case by Richard Smisson, city council member Kathleen Olson, and Alisa Rossini, who served as head election judge for Harris, MN in 2006. Bluestem will upload the affidavits shortly and add links to the documents.
Both Olson and Smisson put Jennifer Wothe in the room when the speaker phone call to the county auditor is made, while Ms. Rossini statement suggests that only she, Olson and Smisson took part in the call. There are also other variations in the stories that might be significant, as they suggest different timelines and more than one call to the county auditor.
According to their statements, Olson and Smisson served as election judges that year in precincts away from Harris, where they were candidates for office, and came to City Hall when Rossini contacted them about the same-day registrants using the former laundromat as their residence; she states that Ken Kabanuk--a foe of the mayor, according to Kaminsky's article--voted and his driver's license listed the "laundromat" as his residence. He "brought with him between 8 and 12 people that he claimed were also living in this tiny laundromat."
Bluestem's immediate thought is that it is surprising that Rossini and the Harris officials, as trained election judges, were not aware of the challenge process, nor of how a challenge might help document vouching fraud. None of the three statements say that the voters were challenged. The affidavits seem to Bluestem's opinion to document outrage more than an understanding of process and law.
Moreover, Smisson and Rossini seem very upset that people living with disabilities, who had residence in a local facility, were allowed to vote at all. [end update].
Photo: Richard Smisson in 2007. Credit: Jonathan Kaminsky at City Pages.