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Grant awarded to update Kandiyohi County voting equipment

Briana Sanchez / Tribune file photo A state grant will allow Kandiyohi County to purchase 16 new optical scan machines for tabulating election ballots, including a backup machine in the Auditor's Office. Kandiyohi County Auditor-Treasurer Mark Thompson, shown in a November 2016 file photo, said having a backup should avoid the glitch in 2016 when absentee ballots all had to be run through the scanner a second time with only one machine available.

WILLMAR — Kandiyohi County has been awarded a state grant to help purchase 16 new optical scan machines for tabulating election ballots.

The new machines are expected to arrive in time for the primary election Aug. 14.

The funds were awarded by the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State as part of an initiative to help local units of government update their voting equipment.

Demand for the grant money was high. According to the Secretary of State's office, 85 counties and 17 municipalities applied for grants requesting $13.3 million total — almost double the $7 million that was available.

Many applicants were awarded less than they had sought but Kandiyohi County received its full grant request of $77,935. The grant provides a 50 percent match, leaving the county to come up with an additional $77,935 to buy the new equipment.

"It's just staying on top of the latest technology," said Mark Thompson, Kandiyohi County auditor-treasurer.

Of the 48 voting precincts in Kandiyohi County, 31 use optical scan tabulators, he said. Not all the precincts opted to upgrade with new equipment, but the grant will enable about half of them to obtain the newest version. Three of the new optical scanners also are designated for use in the auditor's office for counting absentee ballots and serving as backups.

The machines cost about $6,000 apiece.

The addition of an extra backup machine should help Kandiyohi County avoid the glitch that occurred during the 2016 election, when results were delayed by the tabulating of absentee ballots. The ballots all had to be run through the scanner a second time, and with only one machine available, it was a lengthy process.

"If we had another machine, we could have done it in half the time," Thompson said.

The grant purchase "will really help us," he said. "We'll have two backup machines."

The issue of aging election equipment is a problem facing all 50 states. After the 2000 presidential recount in Florida, when concerns were raised about state election equipment, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act to provide one-time federal funds to help states purchase new equipment.

Last year the Minnesota Legislature authorized $7 million to assist with the purchase of new voting equipment. The bill provided up to a 50 percent match for mandatory equipment such as optical scan precinct counters, optical scan central counters and assistive voting devices, and up to a 75 percent match for electronic rosters.

Steve Simon, Secretary of State, called it "an important step for election integrity by ensuring that voting equipment is up to the standards Minnesotans expect."

The fact that local governments requested nearly double the amount of funding available points to the urgency of the issue, Simon said in a statement.

"It is clear that replacing our state's aging election equipment is an ongoing need," he said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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