Neil Shah: The MN GOP’s caucus scandal

A funny thing happened as we started to receive delegate lists back from the MN GOP: our delegates were missing.

Volunteers make phone calls for Dr. Neil Shah's campaign urging supporters to attend caucuses Feb. 1. (Photo courtesy of Neil Shah)

As a gubernatorial candidate there are few issues more important to me than election integrity. Judging by the words of other candidates it would seem they’d agree. In fact, I would venture that the MN GOP, and both conservatives and Republicans in the state of Minnesota, would easily select election integrity as one of their most critical issues. Unfortunately, we have a brewing election integrity problem in the MN GOP that is affecting not only my campaign but many other campaigns as well. The integrity of our caucus process is in doubt.

Bear with me for some inside baseball that will provide needed background. On Feb. 1, the major parties in Minnesota, including the MN GOP, convened caucuses throughout the state. The primary purpose of the caucuses is to elect delegates and alternates who will attend basic political organizational unit, BPOU, conventions. Secondary objectives include holding a nonbinding straw poll of candidates and advancing resolutions for consideration by the party.

The BPOU conventions serve two primary purposes. First, the delegates in attendance decide who will receive the party endorsement for local races. For example, if Ron Rino is a sitting state senator but Patty Patriot, a grassroots senate challenger to Mr. Rino, gains more delegate votes, then Patty will earn the GOP endorsement. This process allows outsider candidates a real shot at gaining the endorsement of the party, including resources, data and financial benefits that come with that endorsement. A secondary objective of BPOU conventions is to select statewide delegates. These folks will cast votes at congressional district conventions and the statewide convention in May. The statewide convention is where the constitutional offices, including governor, receive their endorsements.

As a gubernatorial candidate seeking the party endorsement, I have an interest in driving my supporters to become delegates, hopefully statewide delegates, and finding out in a timely fashion who the elected delegates are so I can persuade them to support my campaign. Every campaign for every office has the same plan. The BPOU convention season kicks off on Feb. 19. By party rules, the data on delegates and alternates from each BPOU is supposed to be made available at the same time to every campaign in a timely fashion.

This year was a bumper year for non-presidential caucus attendance. Throughout the state the turnout was high as newly-engaged citizens participated in the caucus process for the first time. This is the kind of grassroots engagement that can fundamentally shift the party. That type of shift is good if you’re a conservative and not so good if you’re a RINO party insider. Our campaign drove quite a few supporters to caucus, finishing third in the straw poll. But more importantly, we felt that we turned out folks who wanted to become delegates.

A funny thing happened as we started to receive delegate lists back from the MN GOP: our delegates were missing. People who had been elected as BPOU delegates were not on the lists coming back from the GOP — not simply mislabeled or listed with an incorrect phone number but missing wholesale. No amount of “data scrubbing” — the miraculous solution suggested by MN GOP leadership — will find missing names. Was the problem localized? No. We know at least four distinct BPOUs where our folks were missing. Fortunately these supporters kept receipts: they had photos of the BPOU delegate sheets. Some have provided signed affidavits that they were in attendance and elected on caucus night. While revised lists have been sent out by the MN GOP, many elected delegates remain missing — and we do not yet have all of the data for the state nor have we had the chance to call through all of it.

We attempted to share these concerns with the MN GOP leadership Monday but were rebuffed. “We’ve sent the data to the RNC and they’re going to scrub it for errors.” Again, no amount of data scrubbing can correct a missing name or identify an improperly added name. Only by going back to the original precinct and BPOU paper sign-up sheets can we audit who actually belongs on the delegate lists and who does not. So we made a reasonable request for this data: give all of the campaigns access to the sheets. At the time of writing this editorial the MN GOP refuses to provide campaigns with access to the “source code,” as it were.

Was it just our campaign? No. We know at least one other gubernatorial campaign that is missing a substantial amount of their delegates. The error is the same: first-time caucus attendees are missing.

Is this the only error? Unfortunately, no. Some BPOUs dumped thousands of erroneous names from prior caucuses into the lists they provided to the MN GOP. These errors are still hard to correct unless you go back to the primary sign-up sheets. Other BPOUs married the wrong name with contact data or botched the correct entry of contact data. These kinds of errors can be expected and are relatively easily corrected with external data sources.

Finally, we have individual BPOUs such as Morrison County, where even more egregious errors have occurred. In Morrison the BPOU chair, a member of Sen. Paul Gazelka’s campaign, purged duly elected delegate names and improperly added names to delegate lists. This is strictly forbidden. While names can be added in absentia, those names must be voted on at a precinct level. Names cannot be added after caucus has concluded. There is no evidence that process was followed in Morrison County. So not only are our supporters missing in Morrison County, but names were added improperly. Is it possible the chair didn’t realize this wasn’t proper? Perhaps. But how much faith should we have in the lists given these actions?

At this point we do not have any sense of the breadth and scope of the improprieties, but the data we do have suggests a variety of errors that are widespread. Surely some BPOUs ran a tight ship and submitted clean, correct data to the state party in a timely manner. These BPOUs should be applauded. However, at the time of this writing, 14 days after caucus night, 25 BPOUs have yet to turn in any data to the state party. Again, the first BPOU conventions are in two days. According to MN GOP rules, delegates are supposed to get confirmatory phone calls with convention details 10 days prior to the convention.

How do we right the ship? First, let’s get back to the precinct-level data from each BPOU — the source code. There is no reason that these sheets cannot be scanned and made available to every campaign under existing data sharing agreements. Second, the MN GOP should hire a third-party service to perform data entry from the source documents. The costs of this would be relatively minor as we’re talking about perhaps 10,000 names and it could be easily outsourced. Each campaign could then spot check the lists against the primary source documents if desired. Third, the MN GOP should verify that published rules on caucus processes were followed in each and every BPOU throughout the state. Noncompliant BPOUs should be identified. Further remedies may be required depending on the quantity and quality of the errors. Fourth, the conventions cannot proceed on the anticipated timeline. Once we have verified, correct lists then a two-week runway should be provided that would enable each campaign to contact the correct delegates and plead their case for support at the BPOU conventions.

Election integrity starts at home. We cannot criticize the Democrats for cheating in election after election if we do not stand for the utmost in fair and transparent elections ourselves. Our campaign, and I suspect others as well, are running a strategy that requires a fair shot at earning the party endorsement, by which we will abide. We cannot all simply “go to primary” — nor should we be expected to do so when there is a caucus process.

I remain hopeful that MN GOP leadership will step up and take a strong stand for election integrity by agreeing to the remedies outlined above. My campaign looks forward to competing, win or lose, on a level playing field.