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Blomkest residents get first look at new electronic voting system during festival

BLOMKEST -- Minnesota voters will be using new technology, while still hanging on to the comfort of a paper ballot, when they go to the polls this fall.

Both components of Minnesota's new voting system were on display Thursday night in Blomkest during the Kandiyohi County town's annual summer celebration.

Set up near the door of the Blomkest Community Center, Ryan Flugaur was demonstrating how the AutoMARK ballot marker and the precinct counter machines work.

Flugaur is one of eight people employed by the Minnesota Secretary of State's office that has the task of traveling around the state this summer to educate people about the new equipment.

The machines will be used for the first time on Sept. 12 during the primary election.

Flugaur predicts Minnesota's new equipment, which cost $29 million, will result in "the smoothest elections we've ever had."

Most voters won't see much of a difference than in the past.

They'll receive the paper ballot and fill in the ovals. The next step is to put the ballot in the precinct counting machine.

It's "nothing new and shocking," Willmar City Clerk Kevin Halliday said in a separate interview.

Flugaur said the counting machine should eliminate the most common voting errors that cause ballots to be rejected -- voting across party lines in primary elections and voting for more candidates than specified in a category.

The machine will spit out ballots with errors and give the voter a chance to get a new ballot and do it over.

The votes will be counted electronically and tabulated on a computer memory chip and a paper print-out. The paper ballots will go into a locked metal box below the precinct counter and will be saved in case of a contested election.

"We're not eliminating the paper trail," said Flugaur, adding that security in the machine will prevent the data from being tampered with or modified.

Other voters will notice a change when they go to the polls.

For individuals who are physically unable to see a ballot or hold a pencil to fill in the ovals, the new AutoMARK machine will allow them to vote independently and privately. Under a new federal law, every polling place must have such a machine. The federal government paid for the new voting equipment.

The AutoMARK is equipped with headphones so a voter can hear the ballot selection. A large touch-screen is used to make candidate selections. An alphabet pad is available to spell out the names of write-in candidates. The buttons that control the volume of the recordings and voting directions are also in brail.

The machine will give the voter at least two opportunities to review their ballot before it's marked. Once they have the paper ballot and discover they've made a mistake, they can get a new one and start over.

"It's pretty simple to use," Flugaur said.

Using the AutoMARK machine is optional. People with disabilities can still have a family member, friend or election judge help them fill out a traditional ballot if they prefer.

Both machines require electricity to run and come equipped with back-up batteries that'll last 2-3 hours.

Training sessions will begin in August so Kandiyohi County election judges can learn the ins and outs of the machines.

"It's going to work good," Halliday said.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750