Crow Wing County Board: County officials seek voting machine funding
Vendors might soon halt support and discontinue replacement parts for many of the state's aging voting machines. Crow Wing County Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson said Tuesday funding to replace voting equipment was among the top...
Vendors might soon halt support and discontinue replacement parts for many of the state's aging voting machines.
Crow Wing County Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson said Tuesday funding to replace voting equipment was among the top priorities for election administrators this legislative session.
Erickson told two commissioners present at Tuesday's committee of the whole meeting there's nothing wrong with the county's voting equipment, but the Legislature has yet to establish any funding for replacement equipment. Most of equipment in use in the state was purchased with one-time federal funding provided in the wake of the Bush v. Gore decision, Erickson said, and vendors are warning they will focus resources on servicing the next generation of equipment.
In addition, the vendor that supplied every Minnesota county with Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant equipment will no longer offer replacement parts.
"I've heard of counties scrounging eBay and others to find the parts of what's going to be needed to stockpile and maintain some of their equipment as time goes forward here," Erickson said.
To replace every piece of voting equipment in the state one for one would cost about $28 million, Erickson said, and $368,000 of that would cover equipment in Crow Wing County alone. To prepare for those impending costs, the county has set aside dollars in the capital improvement fund each year, with $65,000 earmarked toward the fund in 2017. Erickson said assuming the Legislature created a plan including a state funding match, the county would still need to set aside an additional $120,000 to replace its equipment.
Erickson said Cass County Commissioner Neal Gaalswyk testified before the Legislature last year concerning the costs, noting Cass County would need to raise its property tax levy by 2-4 percent to offset equipment costs.
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Cass County officials discuss election equipement eplacement
Cass County Board: The future of the county's election process discussed BACKUS - Cass County Auditor-Treasurer Sharon Anderson presented a report on the 2016 election process and outlined her proposals for future election equipment replacement.
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Last year, Crow Wing County spent about $80,000 from that fund to purchase electronic rosters for half of the county's voting precincts. An electronic version of the paper polling place roster, the equipment was a huge hit among both voters and election judges, Erickson said. It cut down on manual entry errors and quickly ensured voters were in the right precincts.
The Legislature recognized the benefits of the electronic rosters, too, and bills in each of the chambers would appropriate $15 million to fund the purchase of them. But neither of those bills include funding for the mandated voting equipment, and Gov. Mark Dayton's budget offered just one-quarter of the estimated replacement costs at $7 million.
"The greatest need right now is for the required mandated equipment we have to have at our polling locations," Erickson said.
She said election administrators have met with the authors of those bills to request a broadening of their scope. It's possible the legislation could include some reimbursement for counties that already purchased electronic rosters, Erickson said, although it might only be funds left over after new purchases.
One way to alleviate some of the need for new equipment is to adopt mail ballots in more voting precincts. In 2016, six townships and cities in the county switched to mail voting, meaning there is no physical polling place in the precinct for voters to cast their ballots. Erickson said this represents cost savings for taxpayers, although there is a tipping point when postage becomes more expensive than staffing a polling place-at about 400-500 voters in a precinct.
Commissioner Paul Koering asked whether this translated to higher voter participation. Erickson said there's a learning curve, but once voters participate in mail voting for a second time, voting rates appear to rise.
Presidential primary prep
While effective in reducing some costs, mail ballots present a challenge with another issue election administrators are hoping the Legislature can clarify.
In 2020, the state's voters will participate in a presidential primary for the first time since 1992. To take part, voters must declare which of the political parties they are members of, and counties must determine how that data will be captured and tracked. That in itself needs clarification, Erickson said, but particularly when it comes to mail ballots. A process for determining one's party affiliation would be necessary prior to sending the ballots, so voters receive the one they need.
"What about a person who's never voted for a straight ballot?" asked Commissioner Rosemary Franzen. "They just don't vote then, because they aren't either?"
Erickson said voters must choose one major party or the other to participate in the presidential primary.
"There will be a lot of people who won't vote, then," Franzen said.
"That's part of the concern on the issue. Will it disenfranchise people who do not want to?" Erickson said. "Because you've never had to declare a party in Minnesota from the standpoint of at a typical primary, where you go and vote for those different races, (you) vote one column or vote the other, but don't vote both. That's not how this one is going to work, because part of it is to figure out what the party bases are for the parties as well."
A precinct caucus and local and state nominating conventions will still occur for other party business, the Minnesota Secretary of State's website notes.
Erickson said with no history to base these decisions on, it'd likely be in the hands of the secretary of state to establish rules.
Other concerns include when the primary would occur so it would not conflict with township elections in March, and the potential for difficulties finding election judges at a time of year when many "snowbirds" are at vacation locales in warmer climates.
"We may have to really scrounge to find election judges to run an election at that time of year," Erickson said.
More ballot questions
Answers to two other election-related questions are on the wish lists of election administrators, Erickson said.
One concerns the publication of sample ballots in newspapers. The ballots include every possible office one might vote for in the county, and Erickson said this confuses voters who expect their own ballots to look that way. No one's ballot includes all of the offices, in fact, because it's dependent upon in which precinct one lives.
"It's everything from president down to soil and water district," Erickson said. "It does not give a true picture."
Instead, voters can visit the secretary of state's web page "What's on my ballot?" to view a sample ballot based upon their own address. Because not everyone has access to the internet, Erickson said an advertisement could be placed to inform voters how to obtain a sample ballot if they wish. The cost of a small advertisement versus a two-page spread in a newspaper would be stark, she added.
"We'd like to save several hundreds of thousands of dollars to publish a sample ballot that's of use to nobody," Erickson said.
The other issue concerns direct balloting, or the period during which voters can vote absentee in person ahead of Election Day. Within a week of an election, the voting equipment is used to submit ballots, rather than the traditional absentee ballots that are placed in an envelope, Erickson said.
In 2016, 8,250 people in the county voted early, she said, and of those, 1,800 voted within the last seven days. Using the tabulation equipment saved employees time, reduced the number of touches on a ballot by staff from six to one, and offered voters the opportunity to correct errors on the spot that might otherwise result in those votes being thrown out.
Erickson said using the equipment during a longer period of the absentee voting window would offer those benefits to more voters.
Erickson told commissioners she's under consideration to serve as the state's local election official on the federal Election Assistance Commission Standards Board, but wanted the go-ahead from the county board before accepting the position.
The board's objective is to "advise the EAC (Election Assistance Commission) through review of the voluntary voting systems guidelines ... and best practices recommendations," the Election Assistance Commission website states. Its membership consists of a state election official from each state and territory, and a local election official from each state and territory.
Erickson would replace Sharon Anderson, Cass County auditor-treasurer, on the board. She said it requires one face-to-face meeting, amounting to three days total, and occasional virtual meetings.
"I'm pretty honored my peers recommended my serving on the board," Erickson said.
She said Secretary of State Steve Simon would make the official appointment if the board approved, and she would submit an out-of-state travel request for the board's next regular meeting. The board would cover all travel costs except her time, Erickson said.
Koering and Franzen both said they supported Erickson's appointment. The two also congratulated Erickson on her recent recognition as Auditor of the Year by the Minnesota Association of County Officers.
"Thank God you're the auditor and I'm not," Koering said to laughter.
Koering ran against Erickson during the 2014 election-the last time the post will ever be voted on in Crow Wing County, following a restructure.