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Column: The 2018 election will require investment

What? We are already talking about 2018 elections?

While your mailboxes, newspapers and telephones are getting a break from all the political talk, the staff at Goodhue County who administer elections are already thinking about next August and November.

The big question for 2018 has to do with election equipment. Remember the big black box where you insert your ballot? Those machines have been around for 10 to 15 years and have not kept up with technology and the expectations of our voters.

In 2016 new legislation allowed Minnesota voters to "early vote" — up to seven days prior to the election. "Early voters" actually places their ballot in the machine as they leave the absentee site prior to Election Day. Goodhue County could not offer this option in 2016 as we did not have the necessary equipment. (This is not to be confused with absentee voting, which has been around and will continue to be far into the future.)

For the 2016 presidential election, 25,929 Goodhue County voters cast a ballot. Of that group. 4,148 voted absentee (completed an application, received the ballot, voted, inserted the ballot in two different envelopes, then dropped off or mailed the ballot.) Those 4,148 envelopes were then returned to the Finance and Taxpayers Office and we confirmed that you had applied for an absentee ballot. Then on the Saturday before election up through election night. they were opened individually, unfolded, fed into the machine to be counted, and then tallied after 8 p.m. Results for these plus the ballots cast on Election Day were then transmitted to the Secretary of State's Office.

Of those 4,148 ballots, 30 percent of them (1,240) were completed within the last seven days. Do many of you remember standing in line to obtain your absentee ballot some time that last week?

Our current machines cannot read ballots from all 40 precincts. If we do not acquire updated technology, we will have to say to a voter from Kenyon that comes to vote early, "Please, go to machine X over in the corner." The next voter may be from Vasa Township and they would be directed to a different machine. I do not want to even think about the confusion that would entail.

Therefore, in order to provide early voting to Goodhue County residents, it will be necessary to purchase new equipment that will handle ballots from all 40 of our precincts at once. Vendors and their equipment have to be approved by the Office of the Secretary of State before their equipment can be utilized in Minnesota. Because many of the counties are facing the same problem, these vendors have submitted proposals to the state stating the exact cost they will charge election administrators along with maintenance guarantees for a specific time period.

The approved costs to be charged on what is called a "state contract" should be available in the next month.

If it were only that simple — buy one machine to allow for early voting and off we go. If the county provides early voting and must go with a new machine to do so, the software programming and related activities require not only the county, but also the cities and townships to buy new machines.

Estimated costs for all locations will be nearly $250,000. The 2017 Legislature noted this could be a problem and implemented a grant program which will provide Goodhue County with approximately $67,960 to offset these costs. The remainder will be paid for by the local jurisdictions.

So, the big question is what do we do? Staff met recently with representatives of 31 of the 40 precincts to talk about it. Discussion revolved around old and new equipment, two different vendors, absentee voting and potential changes, costs, distribution of grant dollars and timelines.

The County Board will be meeting in October to review the topic in more depth and provide direction to staff. The county election administration staff strive to utilize modern technology while being fiscally responsible, provide you with a positive experience, and exceed the expectations of our voters.

When the primary election rolls around less than 11 months from now, we will be ready for you, the voter.