Election officials count ballots the old-fashioned way

November 13, 2006

By Natalie J. Ostgaard, City Editor, Crookston Daily Times

A handful of Polk County election officials got a taste of how ballot counting was done in the old days - more than two decades ago - when they conducted the newly mandated Post Election Equipment Review (PEER) Monday afternoon. The group spent 2 1/2 hours hand counting 476 ballots, but only for the offices of governor, U. S. senator and U. S. representative.

"This really makes you appreciate precinct counters," Polk County Auditor-Treasurer Jerry Amiot said of the automated equipment now used. "It saves a lot of time and headaches."

The PEER tests the accuracy of election equipment across the state. With new voting machines in place for this year's election, Minnesota is one of only 13 states to require some type of review and the only state where a review is observed publicly, according to Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer.

Depending upon population, each county must select at least the two to four precincts at random, one having 150 or more votes cast in the 2004 general election. The margin for error- no more than one-half of 1 percent of total votes counted in a precinct - leaves little room for equipment problems.

Because most counties are conducting their reviews this week, results will be available later. All results must be submitted to Kiffmeyer's office by Friday, Nov. 17.

The process

Laurie Anderson, a deputy from Amiot's office who presided with him over the PEER, said the two precincts in Polk County passed the accuracy test with flying colors.

"Everything was acceptable," she said. "There were no errors."

The Polk County Canvassing Board randomly chose Tabor Township and East Grand Forks City Ward 4, coincidentally located near each other, for the PEER. Tabor had 82 votes two years ago compared to 66 this year, while EGF Ward 4 had 649 two years ago and 410 this year.

The head election official from each precinct along with two election judges of two different political parties conducted the hand counts. Two independent observers representing Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota, a watchdog organization whose primary purpose is to ensure that all votes are counted accurately, also sat in to monitor the count.

After Amiot unsealed the boxes of ballots, the three officials from each precinct went to work counting them. Beginning with the office of governor, as the head official recorded results the others separated ballots with valid votes (those for which they could determine voter intent) into piles for each candidate. Ballots that the tabulator could read went into one pile. Another pile encompassed "exceptions" - valid votes marked outside the ovals or otherwise unreadable by the tabulator.

Once the ballots were divided into these piles, officials counted them into groups of 25. Results were then entered into a spreadsheet, where precinct tape figures were already in, and calculated for accuracy. They then repeated the process for senator and representative. Amiot noted that write-in candidates were included as well.

Although he participated in and oversaw many hand counts before the county fully implemented the automated punch card voting system in 1986, Amiot said the PEER was a learning process for him as well as the others in attendance.

"We've never done this before," he said while going through the instructions with the crew. "So we're all in the same boat."

In addition to the PEER, the Secretary of State will be conducting a performance review of at least four precincts in each of the state's eight congressional districts. At its meeting Nov. 21, the State Canvassing Board will choose these at random. Kiffmeyer's staff will then monitor and evaluate the procedures used by election officials at all levels.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this nformation for non-profit research and educational purposes only. Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article, nor is Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota endorsed or sponsored by the originator.