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New federal election rules require assistive machines

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WILLMAR -- The Jan. 1 deadline for states to be in compliance with new federal election rules is putting the squeeze on Minnesota counties who are rushing to hold hearings and get their plans approved.

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The Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners will hold a hearing at 11:15 a.m. Tuesday on their Help America Vote Act plan.

County Auditor Sam Modderman said he hopes representatives from townships, municipalities and school districts attend the meeting and provide input before the plan is approved. Changes can't be made after the plan is approved, but Modderman said changes can be proposed and made on Tuesday.

The plan outlines how the county will use federal and state grant money to purchase, maintain, operate and store new "assistive voting" equipment that will allow people with disabilities to vote independently and privately by electronically marking their ballots.

The plan also details how funds will be used to purchase and maintain optical-scan precinct counting machines that will allow votes to be counted at each precinct, rather than being tabulated with the central counting machine at the county auditor's office.

The new precinct counting machines will also tell a voter if they've over-voted -- marked too many choices in a category, thus voiding their ballot -- and give them an opportunity to cast a new ballot. This second-chance-to-vote option is also a requirement of the Help America Vote Act.

In conjunction with the act, some entities have agreed to combine, or share, their polling places in order to save money for operating and maintaining the new machines. There will be 15 fewer polling places in Kandiyohi County after Jan. 1.

Although a record of the combined polling places is included as information in Kandiyohi County's formal Help America Vote Act document, it's not part of the official plan the County Commissioners will take action on, Modderman said. The issue of whether precincts will share polling places needs to be taken up with the respective townships and municipalities, he said.

"This plan spells out how all the money that we're going to get is going to be spent," Modderman said.

Copies of the plan are available at the auditor's office at 400 Benson Ave. S.W. in Willmar.

Once the plan is approved and the money arrives, Kandiyohi County will purchase the equipment and begin training election judges in hands-on sessions. The equipment needs to be in place for any federal and state elections held after Dec. 31, 2005, which for this areas means the primary elections in September of 2006. County, municipal and school district elections are exempt until 2008.

Divvying up the money

Minnesota will get $29 million in federal Help America Vote Act money. Kandiyohi County is guaranteed to receive a grant of $331,791.

The money will be enough to cover the entire cost to purchase the voter-assistive machines, plus provide up to $600 per precinct per year to cover the costs of operating and programming the machines.

Modderman said he anticipates it will cost much more than $600 to program the voter-assistive machine each year, but he didn't want to speculate on how high the cost would be. The county plan spells out who will pay for any extra costs, which will be split among the jurisdictions involved in the particular election.

The cost of programming the voter-assistive machine for an election other than the primary or general election will be the responsibility of the local jurisdiction having the election, according to the plan. If three precincts have a combined polling place, they precincts will split the cost three ways.

Some of the original grant money can also be used to purchase the optical-scan counting machines.

Kandiyohi County has also applied for a second grant of $108,000 from the state's $6 million federal allocation to help purchase the precinct counting machines.

Other counties will be competing for that grant money, but Modderman said because Kandiyohi County still uses the central counting system, it will be considered a high-priority county to obtain the precinct counters, versus other counties who want the money only to update existing precinct counters. Modderman said he's confident Kandiyohi County will also receive the second grant.

Given the limitations on the state and federal grants, Modderman said having enough money to buy counting machines for all the precincts in the county is only possible because some precincts have combined their polling locations.

Each precinct in Minnesota will receive approximately $7,059 in federal funds to buy the voter-assistive machines. The number of precincts in each county is based on the last election. Kandiyohi County had 47 precincts and thus will receive $331,792.

During the process to develop the Help America Vote Act plan for Kandiyohi County, a number of entities agreed to work together and share their polling places and their voter-assistive machines and counting machines. Doing so will save the individual precincts long-term operating costs.

Another benefit to having 15 fewer polling places is the pool of extra money that will be available to offset operating costs and to help purchase counting machines, as allowed by state law.

The county receives funding to purchase 47 voter-assistive machines -- one for each precinct -- even though only 36 must be purchased to serve all the county's polling places. That figure includes four backup machines, one of which will be available at the county auditor's office for absentee voters.

If none of the precincts in Kandiyohi County had merged polling places, Modderman said there would not have been enough grant money available to purchase all the precinct counters needed in the county.

The pot of extra money -- now the equivalent of $1,207 per precinct -- would have been bigger, however, if the city of Willmar had stuck with its original plan to reduce the number of polling places from 12 to four. Instead of having $1,207 per precinct, there would have been more than $2,000 per precinct available for the county to use for continued operating costs, Modderman said.

Combining polling places

Combining polling places means that residents from different precincts, like the city of Sunburg and Arctander and Norway Lake townships, will vote in the same building. In that building there will be one voter-assistive machine and one optical-scan vote counter.

Precincts can even share election judges as long as there is at least one person representing each precinct, Modderman said.

There will still be separate voter rosters for the individual precincts at each polling place.

Nancy Feldman, city clerk for Sunburg, said supervisors from Arctander and Norway Lake townships approached the city about combining. The drive to town isn't expected to increase mileage too much for the township voters, she said.

Combining will allow the three entities to share judges and the future costs of operating and maintaining their voter-assistive machines and the vote counters. "It cuts down on costs for all of us," Feldman said. Some town halls aren't handicapped-accessible, either, and the townships would have been required to spend money to upgrade their facilities.

Feldman said she expects some disabled voters who have had ballots brought to them in their car will still want to vote that way. Feldman said she understands that option will still be available. The voter-assistive machine "may never get used," she said, but it will be there for those who want to use it.

The voter-assistive machines are able to accommodate people with a myriad of disabilities, and the system is seen by human rights advocates as a significant step forward.

Casting and counting ballots

Most people won't see any change in how they vote the next time they go to the polls. The ballots will still look the same, Modderman said.

What they do with the ballot will be different, however. Instead of putting it into a box, the ballot will be fed into the counting machine, which will inform the voter if the ballot has been correctly completed.

At the end of the night, each precinct will have its results electronically tabulated. A CD with the information will be brought to Modderman's office and the results will be recorded.

The process should speed up election night, said Modderman, who confesses he's going to miss the excitement of his office being the hub of activity on election night.

It's not known what will become of the county's central counting machine. Because of new technology that's available, Modderman said it has little, if any, value.

Public hearing on Kandiyohi County plan set for Tuesday

The Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners will hold a hearing at 11:15 a.m. Tuesday on their Help America Vote Act plan.

The plan outlines how the county will use federal and state grant money to purchase, maintain, operate and store new "assistive voting" equipment that will allow people with disabilities to vote independently and privately by electronically marking their ballots.

Copies of the plan are available at the auditor's office at 400 Benson Ave. S.W. in Willmar.

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Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750
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