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County is one of 30 counties in state to receive funds for voting equipment

WILLMAR -- Kandiyohi County is one of 30 Minnesota counties that have already received funds to purchase new voting equipment.

Bearing an oversized check with $331,791.83 made out to Kandiyohi County, Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer made the formal presentation Wednesday to county officials at the Health and Human Services Building in Willmar.

"It's really momentous what we're doing," said Kiffmeyer, thanking Kandiyohi County for their work in developing a plan to purchase, use and maintain the equipment.

Kiffmeyer said about one-third of the remaining 57 counties are close to getting their plans approved while others haven't even submitted their plan yet. She said she hoped all of the counties would receive their grant money by the end of February.

Minnesota received $35 million in federal funds to purchase equipment that Kiffmeyer said will bring "voter equity" to the state. The grants are part of federal legislation called the Help America Vote Act.

States were given "standards" but "flexibility" in how the money could be used, said Kiffmeyer. "We lobbied for flexibility," she said. "Every state has a different need."

In Minnesota, some of the money will be used to purchase voter-assist terminals that will allow people with disabilities to vote independently and privately.

The rest of the money will be used to purchase optical scanners that will count all paper ballots in each precinct.

While some states have opted for electronic balloting, Kiffmeyer said Minnesota's decision to maintain paper ballots will create greater voter confidence in the process, especially if a recount is required. The scanners will also spit out spoiled ballots and give voters numerous chances to vote again. "They're going to cast a more accurate ballot," said Kiffmeyer. "The focus is on the voters."

The scanners should also speed up vote counting on election night.

While the precinct counters will be used by every voter, Kiffmeyer said the assistive voting machines may initially be used by a small percentage of people.

The machines' technology will allow people with a variety of disabilities -- such as visual and hearing impairments -- and people who aren't able to use the touch screen or touch pad to vote by themselves. But Kiffmeyer said the machines will not only help people with significant disabilities, but also individuals with diseases such as Parkinson's, who may find it difficult to hold a pencil.

She encouraged the county officials to get the voter-assistive equipment out to voters ahead of time, like at county fairs and nursing homes, to allow people a chance to use it before going to the polls. Once people become familiar with it, she predicted more people will use it on Election Day.

Just because the voter-assist terminal will be available, it doesn't mean voters with disabilities have to use it. People can still have their ballots brought out to their vehicles and have personal assistance if they want, she said. The difference is voters will now have a choice. The company that Minnesota has contracted with to provide the equipment is ES&S from Omaha, Neb. "They're making our equipment right now," said Kiffmeyer. There's no target date for delivery. The first time the machines will be required is for the Sept. 12 primary, unless there's a death or resignation of a state or federal office holder. Kiffmeyer joked that people in her office are "praying for good health" for elected officials so that the machines aren't needed earlier.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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