Margaret Schneider is 86 years old and acknowledges that dementia makes her forget some things. But she never imagined that being forgetful would get her slapped with a felony count.
The St. Peter, Minn., woman, who also suffers from Parkinson’s disease, has been charged with voter fraud after accidentally voting twice in the 2012 primary election. She first learned about the mistake when a “nice” city detective knocked on her door to inform her about her votes, she said in a phone interview Thursday. Then came the notice from the Nicollet County attorney’s office telling her to be in court April 2 to answer the felony charge.
Schneider, a plain-spoken woman who takes pride in the fact that she’s been “voting as long as I can remember,” was shocked. But after the detective talked to her, she doesn’t dispute the facts.
“It was my mistake,” she said. “I’m heartsickened by it.”
It all came about because Schneider thought her polling place was still at the St. Peter Armory on the other side of the town of about 11,000 people 70 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. She didn’t think she could find a ride to the armory on the August primary day, so Schneider voted in July by absentee ballot. “It was the first time I have ever voted by absentee,” she said.
What she didn’t know at the time was that her polling place was actually at the community center a half-block from her apartment.
“She’s a very independent woman, and she has a hard time asking for help,” said her eldest daughter, Eva Moore, who said she would have been happy to give her mother a ride to the polling place.
Schneider is a woman who has raised five children and worked hard all her life. “I’ve waitressed, been a cook, made beds and taken care of lots of children baby-sitting them,” she said. And she always votes. “I want to have my say and then be able to argue with people afterwards,” she said.
So on the day of the primary, she was struck with fear after bumping into a friend who asked whether she had voted at the nearby polling place.
“My mother said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I have to go vote,’” Moore said. And she took the short walk to mark her ballot, having forgotten that she had already voted absentee.
Moore and her mother are dismayed that the election judge didn’t notice the “A.B” written next to Schneider’s name indicating she had already voted by absentee ballot.
By October, a city detective came calling to tell Schneider about her crime. “He said he was real sorry that they would have to press charges,” Moore said. “He was very, very nice about it and apologized and said they tried everything possible not to do that.”
Nicollet County Attorney Michelle Zehnder Fischer also had no choice but to file the charge. Fischer, who said Thursday night that she can’t comment on the specific case, said the statute “does not provide me with any discretion if I have probable cause to believe an individual committed a voter fraud crime. There’s not the normal prosecutorial discretion with who is charged with a voter fraud crime, which is different from any other case that comes through my door. I have to file charges or I’m guilty of a crime and could forfeit office.”
But under the law, the county attorney can use her discretion in choosing from a broad range of options to resolve the case when it goes to court, Fischer said, pointing out she can’t discuss what she might recommend.
In the worst case, the maximum penalty for voter fraud is up to five years in prison. But the county attorney and the judge could simply ask Schneider for a promise to comply with the voting laws in the future.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever vote again,” Schneider said. “I definitely won’t vote absentee again. … Look at all the trouble I got into. It just makes me real mad. It really hurt me.”