Since 2008, county has tried 36 for illegal voting

No cases of voter impersonation found

 

Cliff Buchan
Staff Writer

How prevalent is illegal voting in Washington County?

Not very, following an examination of criminal prosecutions by the Washington County Attorney’s Office on cases originating from the general elections of 2008 and 2010.

Allegations of illegal voting and voter fraud are among the driving forces behind the Tuesday, Nov. 6 constitutional amendment that if passed would require a picture ID at the voting polls.

In Washington County a total of 36 individuals have been prosecuted or remain in the legal system on formal charges from voting irregularities during the past two general elections.

Richard Hodsdon, the assistant county attorney in charge of the voting cases, said the 36 charges originated from an initial list of 400 complaints alleging illegal voting activity in the county.

Of the 36 cases, three originated in Forest Lake and all were from the 2008 presidential election year.

The 36 cases were culled from nearly a quarter of a million voters who cast ballots in the two general elections. A total of 137,323 ballots were cast in 2008. In 2010, 103,725 voters turned out at the polls.

The Cases

Hodsdon said the 36 cases involved individuals who cast ballots at a time when they were not eligible to vote or by individuals registering to vote when not eligible to vote. Both are felonies under state law.

No cases of voter impersonation were found in the two election cycles, he said.

Of the original 400 allegations referred to the county attorney’s office, some 100 were sent to the sheriff’s office or local police departments in county for active investigation, Hodsdon said. Of the 36 cases prosecuted, seven remain to be resolved in the legal system.

Under state law, a convicted felon who is on supervised probation is not allowed to vote. A person on supervised probation may not register to vote. Voting rights are restored once probation is formally discharged, Hodsdon said.

In some of the cases, the county had to prove that the person voting or registering to vote in fact was aware that he or she could not legally do so, Hodsdon said.

The Forest Lake cases from 2008 involved two ineligible voters knowingly voting and one case of an ineligible voter registering to vote.

Most of the cases were settled with pleas agreements, Hodsdon said. Just six cases went to trial.

A conviction generally results in a small fine, community work service. Credit for any time served in jail and supervised probation of up to five years. With good behavior the defendant is eligible to be discharged early from probation.

Why Now?

Hodsdon has been a county prosecutor since 1987. In those 25 years, this marks the first time the county has been actively involved with prosecuting cases of alleged illegal voting.

“I had never seen this before,” he said.

Cases normally originate with local election [county, city, township] officials or the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office, Hodsdon said. But since 2008, watchdog groups such as Minnesota Majority have poured through voter registration lists to identify persons who may have voted illegally.

Hodsdon said the research has been helpful in some cases, but in others it has not.

Part of the problem, he said, is determining when a felon’s probation has been satisfied. There is often a time drag in updating records that indicate if a person may still be on probation when in fact the probationary period has been completed, he said.

Hodsdon said there may be a misunderstanding of probation rules, as well, in terms of voter eligibility.

Under state law, Hodsdon said someone placed on probation without a formal court conviction is still entitled to vote.

Often times, Hodsdon said, voter fraud is a matter of people simply wanting to vote.

In 2010, a Wisconsin couple returned to their former home precinct in Lakeland to cast ballots. They were later found in violation.

The woman entered a plea and accepted a division program to clear her name. Her husband, Hodsdon said, fought his charge and lost in court. “Now he has a criminal record,” he said.

Hodsdon questions if the new Voter ID rules would have prevented many of the cases than landed in his lap because most of those charged had valid photo IDs.

“Voter ID would have been irrelevant with the three dozen cases we reviewed,” Hodsdon said.

But county attorneys have little choice in accepting or rejecting challenges of voting rights, he says, as state law mandates that all complaints be addressed by the prosecuting attorney in the county where formal allegations are made, he said.

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