Washington County, Minn., Putting 90 New Voting Machines to Work

The county's new voting machines include features like automated response to indicate an error and digital scanners that take photographs of ballots.

by Kevin Giles, McClatchy News Service / April 21, 2014

The dutiful Washington County, Minn., voter, having chosen candidates and issues after a few moments of intense concentration in the election booth, steps to the counting machine with ballot in hand only to find a problem.

But what?

Did the voter “overwrite” the ballot by marking more than one candidate for a race? Or stray across party lines in a primary election? Or fail to mark the vote inside the oval spaces provided, circling them instead?

A color screen on the county’s new voting machine indicates an error. Once the nature of the error pops up, the screen gives the voter a simple choice: return the ballot or cast it. In the first instance, the voter could ask an elections judge to destroy the ballot and provide a new one. If the voter chooses to cast the ballot, it would enter the machine and become official, with the part in error discarded.

That automated response is the main feature of 90 new voting machines the county purchased this year that are being distributed to cities and townships. At a cost of $5,395 apiece, they were purchased with federal grants and county levy money to replace machines the county bought in 1999.

“The biggest difference [with the new machines] is the voter can act independently rather than invoke the attention of an election judge,” said Jennifer Wagenius, director of the county’s Property Records and Taxpayer Services division, which oversees elections.

Washington County has 88 precincts, each of which will receive a new voting machine. The county will keep two in reserve.

“They’re very excited we’re moving in this direction. They were very pleased,” Carol Peterson, the county’s elections supervisor, said of election officials.

The old machines were “very accurate” in counting votes but were wearing out, she said. The new machines, she said, have digital scanners that take photographs of ballots. Older machines have optical scanners.

The same new equipment has been installed in Anoka and Hennepin counties, Peterson said.

When the old machines found errors, they would acknowledge the nature of the problem in a display that blinked off after a few seconds. The machine then rejected the ballot, and voters had to ask an election judge for help. Often the problem became apparent only after looking at the ballot.

Errors on ballots rarely exceed more than a few percentage points of all ballots cast, Peterson said, and most of them are associated with improper crossover voting on primary election ballots. “We’ve seen some creative voting,” she said.

The new machines, like the old, can’t detect the names of write-in candidates. Election judges will inspect each ballot after its cast to determine write-in votes, but the challenge for voters as much as for the machines is deciphering handwriting. That problem doesn’t exist on the county’s assisted voting technology, available to voters with disabilities, because write-in names are typed.

The new machines will see their first use in primary elections in August. Two weeks before the election, each machine will undergo a “public accuracy test” to make sure it’s functioning accurately.

Voting equipment, Peterson said, won’t undergo huge strides in technology until the state moves away from paper ballots. In any case, she said, “my goal is assuring access to the polls.”

©2014 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)