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Dated voting machines needing improvements

Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson (left) of Crow Wing County, Minn., tells a state House committee March 1, 2017, about needs of elections officials. Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Minnesota's local government officials say searching the eBay online auction site for voting machine parts is not the best way to keep the foundation of democracy running smoothly.

The company that made much of Minnesota's voting equipment, especially for disabled voters, has moved on to newer technologies and parts for machines used in most Minnesota polling places are hard to find.

"The best answer to that is eBay," Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson of Crow Wing County told a Minnesota House committee Wednesday, March 1, before the panel approved a bill providing counties $14 million next year.

That is half the cost county officials say they need to spend to update equipment. Senators are considering legislation with less financial help.

Goodhue County Finance Director Carolyn Holmsten would like to see the machinery updated locally as well. "Two years ago we estimated to replace everything in the county at that point in time would have cost us about $275,000."

Holmsten mentioned that election costs can be tricky to budget for. "There's always the issue, is this a state cost, a federal cost, does it get passed on to cities and townships? Where's the line?"

With updated technology and new machines available, the cost can increase over time. Currently Goodhue County does not have any money set aside for voting machine improvements.

Holmsten hopes the updates, if made, focus on two important issues.

"One, have the voters vote early on site and feed their ballot into a machine that can count more than just a few precincts. Secondly, we need machinery out in the precincts that in time, can do the job," she said.

A majority of the problems Holmsten encounters deal with mail in votes being folded, sometimes causing the machine to reject it.

It is not that when voters go to the polls they will encounter machines collapsing around them, Erickson said. Voting machines undergo regular tests.

"There is not a concern that the tabulating equipment is going to fall apart," she added, but voting machines for the disabled may break down, and many precincts have just one of the machines.

Justine Morris of Hart InterCivic, a Texas-based company, brought new voting equipment to the Capitol to show lawmakers what the $14 million could help buy.

He showed a device with a video screen that could be used by people with nearly any type of disability. Braille would help the blind, knobs with indentations could help people without use of hands to manipulate the machine by using straws in their mouths. People who use "sip and puff" devices to maneuver wheel chairs and do other tasks also could vote.

Once a person finishes voting, a ballot just like everyone else uses would be printed out and scanned by the vote counting machine.

"A perfectly matched ballot," Morris said about the paper that comes out of a printer.

Nearly all voting machines are due for a replacement.

Many of the country's voting machines were replaced after the 2000 election due to a Florida "hanging chad" controversy that clouded results of the presidential race.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said those machines carried a 10- to 15-year lifespan and should be replaced.

Most counties no longer have federal funds awarded to replace machines after the 2000 issues, so some state officials are looking into helping local governments buy new equipment.

City and county leaders Simon gathered in 2015 estimated that local governments needed $28 million to make needed replacements. Cities and counties are required to provide equipment and staff to cover more than 4,000 election precincts, although many of the most rural precincts only use mail-in ballots so polls are not open there on election day.

Simon and Erickson said most counties do not have the money to pay for voting machine replacement themselves.

While officials say that 80 percent of races on ballots are from state and federal levels, they do not expect state and federal funds to pay for 80 percent of voting machine costs.

Erickson said 50 percent would be welcome.

About 20 counties have upgraded some of their voting equipment in the last four years, but few have undergone the complete overhaul officials say is needed.

"Everybody pretty much needs to replace everything at this point," Erickson said.

Some counties are buying equipment on their own, she said, while others like her Crow Wing County have set aside some money to go with hoped-for state funds.

New machines could cost up to $10,000 per precinct, Erickson said. Even the smallest county could face a $300,000 bill to replace precinct and central office election equipment.

Election officials are quick to remind Minnesotans that the state requires paper ballots, so even if equipment fails, they have them as backup.

Ballots and polling equipment will look much the same once replacements arrive.

"The voters probably won't notice much of a difference at all..." Erickson said. "They still are going to have a paper ballot to fill in; they may fill in an oval instead of a box."

Kit Murray contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.