Dozens of Dakota County residents were charged this week with voting illegally in the 2008 general election, just days before the statute of limitations expired.
The 49 people charged were among 282 complaints registered with Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom’s office in the wake of the controversial—and hard-fought—2008 election, which spurred a months-long recount in the U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken, who was eventually declared the winner.
“Until the 2008 election, we’d only gotten a handful of these referrals every election year,” Backstrom said this week. “It was quite unusual to receive almost 300 in one election cycle.”
The three-year statute of limitations for knowingly voting in an election while ineligible to vote expires today. The statute of limitations is the time in which prosecutors are required to file charges; once the statute expires, an individual can’t be charged with the crime in question.
The county attorney’s office filed all 49 Dakota County cases this week. All the complaints charge the suspects with felonies, either because they were convicted felons or were on felony probation when they cast votes on Nov. 4, 2008. Each faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
“This was an unusually high number of these cases,” said Phillip Prokopowicz, the chief deputy county attorney in Backstrom’s office. “There was increased scrutiny in 2008 over the eligibility of voters, and once a complaint is received, the county attorney is required to investigate and file charges if there’s probable cause to believe a crime was committed.”
It took time to investigate the cases because—in addition to the cases not being the highest priority in Backstrom’s office—investigators have to talk to a suspect’s probation officer and also try to contact the suspect. “And sometimes these people aren’t easily found,” Prokopowicz said.
The Dakota County cases are among several hundred ineligible voter cases filed statewide in connection with the 2008 election, and among close to 1,000 complaints about potentially ineligible voters in the Twin Cities alone, according to Prokopowicz.
Backstrom said his office investigated all 282 Dakota County-related complaints. After an initial review, 153 of the complaints were dismissed for a variety of reasons: Some were sent to the wrong county; some of the individuals hadn’t actually voted; and some were no longer on felony probation and were eligible to vote.
And “on a number of those cases, we determined that we couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they knowingly voted in violation of the law,” Backstrom said. “All of those folks got a letter from us, advising them that if they vote again in the future, it will be a crime.”
Prosecutors are required under law to prove that an individual charged knowingly violated the law. “That’s one of the problems we have,” he said. “A lot of individuals just didn’t now they were not entitled to vote.”
Prokopowicz pointed out that often an individual convicted of a felony is placed on probation, which includes a stay of imposition of the sentence. “Under the law, the judge is saying, ‘I’m staying the imposition of your sentence, and if you successfully complete probation, you’ll have a misdemeanor on your record rather than a felony,’” he said.
“Unless they’re specifically told by their probation officer that they’re considered convicted of a felony, you can understand why there might be some confusion. That’s what you see in a lot of these cases.”
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s office said this week that election integrity remains a “top priority” for the office.
The conservative watchdog group Minnesota Majority has repeatedly criticized how Ritchie’s office oversaw what it called widespread “election irregularities” in 2008, including illegal voting by convicted felons.
The group released a report in 2010, claiming that 2,803 convicted felons “potentially voted” in the 2008 election, most of them in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. The organization forwarded the names of 1,359 convicted felons from Hennepin and Ramsey counties who were suspected of illegally voting in that election.
“For the past several legislative sessions, this office has supported proposals by legislators that would help local election officials prevent felons who have had their civil rights revoked from voting, and that would make prosecution in these cases easier for county attorneys,” Ritchie said in a statement this week.
“Legislation that required felons to receive notification regarding the loss of their voting rights passed in 2009 with overwhelming bipartisan support, but was not signed into law by [then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty].”
Gov. Mark Dayton earlier this year created the bipartisan Task Force on Election Integrity, of which Ritchie is a co-chair. The task force is working on similar legislation to the measure vetoed by Pawlenty.
Inver Grove Heights residents charged were Robert Stanley Bolin, 52; David Allen Bernier, 60; Keylow Lee Harper, 26, who now lives in Maplewood; Steven Mark Barron, 54; and Amy Virginia Gunderson, 46, all convicted felons; and Sheila Marie Ward, 42, who was on felony probation in November 2008.