Minnesota officials aren't fretting about new voting technology

October 30, 2006

The state's system has safeguards, lacking in other states, to allay worries of fraud and malfunction.

John Reinan, Star Tribune

Minnesota officials aren't fretting about new voting technology

Linda Mickelson hopes to go home early on election night -- say, around midnight.

That's a better deal than it sounds. Mickelson, deputy auditor in Grant County, usually gets to bed about 4 a.m. on Election Night after counting more than 3,000 votes by hand.

But on Nov. 7, for the first time, Grant County residents and every other Minnesota voter will cast their ballots on computers. And although concerns about electronic voting have been raised across the United States, Mickelson and other Minnesota election officials say they're confident that voting machines across the state will function just fine on Election Day.

"The primary [Sept. 12] went really smooth," said Michelle Knutson, auditor in Big Stone County, which also used to count votes by hand. "We didn't have any trouble with the machines. I think it will be OK."

It's the law

About 80 percent of Minnesotans already have been voting on computers. But after the Florida election debacle of 2000 -- remember hanging chads? -- the federal government passed a law that effectively requires everyone to vote on computers.

That has raised concerns about possible hacking and computerized vote-rigging. Last month, a computer scientist at Princeton University published a paper describing how he and several students had successfully loaded malicious software into a Diebold voting machine and created a computer virus to spread the malware to other machines.

Problems with electronic voting machines in Ohio, Maryland and other states have sparked controversy. In Georgia and Pennsylvania, voting activists are suing to bar the use of electronic voting machines.

In Minnesota, those concerns have been largely absent, because the state's voting system has safeguards that other states lack, computer experts say. The primary safeguard is the voting machine itself, known as an optical scanner.

In an optical-scan system, voters mark a paper ballot that is scanned and read by the machine. The machine counts the votes, but the original paper ballot is retained and can be used for manual recounts. In some other states, voters use what's called a direct-recording machine: a touch screen that tallies the vote and leaves no paper trail.

Those machines are widely believed to be more vulnerable to computer hackers, but they're not used anywhere in Minnesota.

In addition, state law requires a random recount, by hand, of ballots in two to four precincts in every county. If the machine-tallied votes differ from the hand-counted ballots by more than one-half of 1 percent, then a wider recount is mandatory.

With those safeguards in place, even election watchdogs say they're confident that Minnesota votes will be accurately counted.

"We do not expect problems," said Mark Halvorson, director of Citizens for Election Integrity in Minnesota. "I would be surprised if there were any major discrepancies in the Minnesota vote. We do have a really good system."

Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer said there were only minor problems reported from the September primaries in 87 counties, none of them actually affecting the vote count. For example, she said, poll workers in some counties didn't allow enough time to get the machines up and running by the 7 a.m. opening time.

"We were dealing with very small issues," Kiffmeyer said. "When you consider that this is brand-new statewide, things went really, really good."

John Reinan 612-673-7402 jreinan@startribune.com

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.