FARIBAULT, MINN. - Microphone in hand, Denise Anderson paced from one end of a large conference room to the other, narrating as her team fed ballots into Rice County's vote-counting machines.

Public voting equipment tests are one of the routine, usually sparsely attended duties for local government officials ahead of any election, but on a recent Tuesday morning, dozens of people filed into the room. Halfway through her presentation, hands started shooting up into the air.

"What about the cast voting records, do those get printed on the back of the ballots?" Drew Roach, a legislative candidate from a neighboring county, asked from the audience while another woman filmed him. The head of the county's Property Tax and Elections Office, Anderson responded that she's the subject of pending litigation and couldn't answer any questions. She repeated her response as the audience yelled out more questions.

"Then you shouldn't be holding this meeting!" another person shouted.

Scenes like this are familiar in Rice County, which Republican Donald Trump narrowly carried in 2020 and where local officials have been battling for years with conservative groups who want them to ditch electronic voting machines and instead count ballots by hand. Activists have filled County Board meetings and election equipment tests. A lawsuit against Anderson filed by a former election judge and onetime congressional candidate has been appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Some county leaders are worried election staff will start to quit heading into the height of the 2024 election season, when Trump is back on the ballot and scrutiny will intensify.

"It's very frustrating. I would like to share a lot, but right now I'm not allowed to," Anderson said after the public test for the March 5 presidential primary. "The test was 100 percent accurate and went according to plan."

A yearslong legal challenge

Local officials who run elections in all of Minnesota's 87 counties have been on the frontlines of distrust stemming from Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election. Despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the last presidential or midterm elections, conservative groups have brought their complaints to county board rooms across the state, with little local officials have been able do to address their concerns. Few places have seen as much tension as Rice County, a predominantly rural county an hour south of the Twin Cities.

In October 2021, former local election judge Kathleen Hagen submitted a data request to the county, asking for data on everything from electronic poll books, scanning and tabulation machines to modems, hotspots and routers. She also requested the cast vote records, an electronic record of a voter's selections that national conservative groups have sought across the country.

Unsatisfied with the county's response to her request, Hagen and attorney Matt Benda, who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for Congress in Minnesota's First District in 2022, filed a lawsuit against Anderson to produce more records.

In court documents, the county has said they responded with all the public data, but some of the items they requested simply did not exist, including a cast vote record. Rice County's voting machine software did not produce a cast vote record in the 2020 election.

"There is no obligation for the county to create data in order to satisfy the plaintiffs 'beliefs' that more data exists or can be created," read the county's response.

The lawsuit also asks the courts to block the county from using modems in any part of the election process. Ballot tabulators are not connected to the internet at any point during the election, but after the polls close and all the ballots have been tabulated, state law allows all counties to use a secure modem to transmit unofficial results. After that's done, modems are immediately disconnected, and no election equipment in Minnesota uses a modem to transmit official election results. Ten counties, including Rice, use modems this way.

Benda says the "risk-reward" of using modems at any point in the process "doesn't add up."

"That risk profile isn't outweighed by getting a few early results," he said. "A lot of people have tried to pan our efforts as we're election deniers trying to undo the elections. We're not trying to change results. We want the system moving forward to be secure and transparent."

The Office of the Secretary of State has intervened to defend the county and the state's election systems and said all of their equipment is properly tested and certified. A district court and the Court of Appeals has dismissed the lawsuit on jurisdictional grounds, and the Minnesota Supreme Court could soon decide if it will take up the case for further review. Even if the high court doesn't take up the case, Benda says they could start the process over and refile their lawsuit and sue the county instead of Anderson.

Concern for election staff

State Elections Director David Maeda said all voting equipment goes through thorough testing by local officials before any election. Counties also conduct post-election audits after every election that randomly verify precincts throughout the state to make sure results are accurate.

"The questions being asked are not based in fact — they are based on disinformation, so it's very frustrating for county [officials] living in that realm," he said. "These concerns shouldn't be there."

Tom Moline, who frequents county meetings, said he's been asking the county for cast vote records even before the 2020 election and has a right to get his questions answered as a resident.

"We're seen as the crazies, election deniers," he said. "I paid for this building, I paid for these machines, and I pay Denise Anderson's wages, and they can't have somebody in the county answer questions for the citizens about these machines?"

Kathleen Doran-Norton, a former Bridgewater Township official, also attended the public machine test and said she's worried about the animosity hindering the ability for communities like hers to recruit poll workers and hold on to election staff.

"I have always been proud of what my neighbors have done in handling elections," she said. "I don't quite understand all of a sudden not trusting our neighbors."

Rice County commissioners, when reached by phone, largely shied away from discussing the lawsuit, as well as the push from groups to hand count ballots instead of using machines.

"It troubles me that we can't come to a conclusion on this, obviously there's some misunderstanding," Commissioner Gerry Hoisington said. "That's really all I can say about it. I think we should be able to get it resolved."

Rice County has pointed to state election law in response to the effort to push hand-counting votes, but some counties have made changes. In the last election, the Crow Wing County Board voted to hand-count more ballots than required under law and produce cast vote records.

Rice County Board Chair Galen Malecha said his biggest concern is that the county could see some of its election officials and staff driven out after so many years of confrontation.

"This has been going on since basically Trump lost the election," he said. "It's unfortunate, because we have very good staff here today. They are of the highest integrity in their actions, and they are following the state statutes to a T."