ST. PAUL — The falsehood that spurred the Jan. 6, 2021, mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol — that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from Donald Trump — still colors Minnesota politics a year later.
Democrats say the deadly attack remains an injustice that threatens American Democracy. And Democrats use the event as a means to draw distinction from their Republican opponents who refuse to acknowledge it as such — and to raise money.
For Republicans, it’s more complicated.
How mainstream, if mainstream at all, the falsehood has become among Minnesota Republicans is unclear. A small number of Republican elected officials continue to spread falsehoods about the election. But most, including the party’s leaders, generally try to avoid talking about it in front of the broader public.
Minnesota politicians are entering the 2022 election cycle, where nearly every state office will be on the ballot.
An early indication of how the falsehood might color campaign rhetoric surfaced last month at a forum for five Republican candidates for governor. All were asked whether Joe Biden won; none would outright say he did.
No credible evidence has surfaced to suggest Biden didn’t win, and efforts to litigate or audit the results have failed. Biden won the Electoral College vote 306-232. Biden won Minnesota’s 10 electoral votes, with 52.4% of the vote to Trump’s 45.3%, a margin of some 233,000 votes.
GOP strategists emphasize that nothing related to elections ranks among the highest priorities of their leaders — or their constituents. Concerns over violent crime and coronavirus restrictions are far and away the top issues, they say.
Nonetheless, a faction of the party continues to push to relitigate the 2020 election, demanding state lawmakers take action.
Jan. 6 in Minnesota
Eight people have been arrested in Minnesota and charged in connection with the U.S. Capitol breach, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In Minnesota, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, itself was a tense day. A “Storm the Capitol” rally was organized in St. Paul by Trump supporters — and attended by a few Republican lawmakers. The event attracted several hundred people, included activist speakers who uttered phrases like “there will be casualties” and the nation was on “the threshold of civil war,” but there were no attempts to breach the state Capitol and no violence broke out.
There had been a steady drumbeat of protests as the date — on which Congress would certify Biden’s Electoral College victory — approached. On Jan. 2, crowds that included people armed with handguns and rifles massed outside the east metro homes of two Democratic state lawmakers, and authorities later revealed that they had been monitoring plans for similar events outside the homes of local judges and state constitutional officers.
Senior Republicans here condemned the violence in Washington in the following days, although many stopped short of condemning Trump himself, or calling out the falsehoods. Their refusal to publicly state Biden legally and rightfully won both Minnesota and the nation angered Gov. Tim Walz and other top Democrats.
Soon, demarcation lines had been drawn that mirrored the national picture, wherein the vast majority of Republicans publicly waffled when questioned on the fundamental legitimacy of the election. Privately, some senior Republicans said they feared backlash from Trump or his most devoted base and, ultimately, losing a GOP primary in 2022 as a result.
That dynamic appears to remain etched today, as a number of leading Republicans declined to comment for this story, either themselves or via spokespeople.
Election law changes?
It’s unlikely that any major changes will be made to Minnesota election laws this year. While Republicans control the state Senate, members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party control the House and the governor’s office.
Still, proposals will likely come.
Republican support can be expected for several proposals that predate Jan. 6.
Chief among them are a push to require voters to provide a photo ID — or at least some form of identification beyond what’s currently used to verify a voter when obtaining a ballot. Minnesota is among 15 states with no such requirement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The question of voter photo ID was rejected by Minnesota voters in the form of a constitutional amendment ballot question in 2012.
Another change backed by Republicans is for Minnesota to require “provisional ballots” to be cast and sequestered for unregistered voters who show up the polls. Minnesota allows Election Day voter registration and, if accepted, those ballots are cast with all other ballots, making it impossible to invalidate the voter’s choice if they are later deemed to have been ineligible. Minnesota is among a handful of states that don’t have provisional balloting of some form.
Other elements of the 2020 election that rankled many Republicans include a court-approved settlement between Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat, and a voter-advocacy group that led to a number of one-time relaxations for absentee voting in the name of public health during the pandemic — a change in voting that avoided any oversight from lawmakers. It’s possible Republican lawmakers will try to harden state laws to gird against such changes happening again.
But some are pushing for far more.
'Audits' and 'source codes'
Among far-right social media groups, such as those on the social network Telegram, calls for a “forensic audit” of Minnesota’s 2020 election and access to the “source code” of vote-counting machines have been a topic of preoccupation for months.
Some lawmakers have signed on.
Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, posted a video repeating a debunked criticism of Minnesota’s election, in which Gruenhagen stated, “We’re trying to create a groundswell to have the Legislature address the forensic audit.”
In Minnesota, public machine tests and election audits are regularly performed by local election offices. At least 150 precincts were subject to publicly performed hand recounts of paper ballots, with no statistically noteworthy discrepancies discovered. It’s unclear exactly what Gruenhagen is pushing for because the Legislature doesn’t appear to have the ability to demand a statewide recount or audit under current law. He could not be reached for comment for this story.
Gruenhagen is among seven Minnesota Republican lawmakers who signed onto a national letter in November calling for election audits across the nation. The others were Sen. Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo Township; Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa; Rep. Shane Mekeland, R-Becker; Rep. Erik Mortensen, R-Shakopee; Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal; and Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore.
Former Senate Majority Leader and current Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, who is running for governor, recently called for a “pot of money” to perform more audits to build voter trust. He has avoided directly doubting Biden’s win, but has treated distrust of it as legitimate. Gazelka could not be reached for comment for this story.
Examining the “source code” of election machines is actually a process outlined in state law. The idea was briefly entertained by Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who previously served as secretary of state and now chairs the Senate committee overseeing elections. But Kiffmeyer noted that a third party would need to request and analyze the code — instructions for how computers read and tabulate ballots.
That charge has since been taken up by the Republican Party of Minnesota, which is attempting to raise $2 million it says the effort will require, according to party Chairman David Hann and a section of the party’s website that used to be called “election integrity” and is now called “election protection.”
Hann himself has told the Pioneer Press: “I don’t think there’s any question about that. Joe Biden won — and in Minnesota, certainly.”
A telling moment of how Republicans may navigate the question of Trump’s election falsehood came last month, during a forum hosted by Alpha News for five GOP candidates seeking to challenge Walz in November.
The candidates were asked the following by co-moderator Hugh Hewitt: “In your opinion, did President Biden win a constitutional majority of the Electoral College? If yes, how definitive is your conclusion, and if no, would you please explain which states you think are in dispute, and why?”
All the candidates espoused support for photo ID and other changes to state law. But none answered clearly that Biden won.
Among their responses:
Former state Sen. Scott Jensen of Chaska: “I can’t know. I don’t know, and I think that you have to take that attitude toward 2020. … Which states crossed the line? Which states hit a certain threshold? I can’t know that.”
Gazelka: “I don’t think the election was fair, but I do think we have the results that we have, and the Electoral College is the way we determine who won the election. Each state does their own deal. I’m not a big fan of how that all played out. I focused on Minnesota. … We should create a pot of money so there’s more election audits on a regular basis so everyone knows the election was fair. I’m going to ask the legislative branch to do that.”
State Sen. Michelle Benson of Ham Lake said at one point “the more we watch, the less they cheat,” but did not address the fundamental question, prompting a follow-up from Hewitt: “Did President Biden win?” Benson responded: “He was certified by Congress as having won the Electoral College.”