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Lots of money and work to hold elections

Ryan Tangen is responsible for local elections. Submitted Photo

Come Nov. 6, voters will take 10 minutes out of their day, go vote for their favorite candidates and wait for results available that same night. And that's the end of the story for the average citizen.

But, for Becker County Auditor-Treasure Ryan Tangen and his staff, the election is more of a multi-month process rather than just a few minutes or hours one day.

Costs behind a county election

An election in Becker County costs roughly $105,000.

About $40,000-$45,000 alone is for ballots and programming, which is "almost the same as the whole election was," Tangen said of elections before the new electronic machines were put in place nearly 10 years ago.

The year 2006 was Tangen's first election as auditor with the new M-100 and Automark machines. It costs about $12,000 each election year to maintain and update the equipment.

Other costs to an election include ballots and programming (about $45,000), office supplies (anywhere from $10,000-$20,000) and salaries (about $35,000).

During a general election year, the county foots the bill for the most part. If a certain district, like a school district, for example, wants to send out a mass mailing regarding the election, they pay for that themselves. But, the election cost itself comes from the county.

Tangen said it essentially comes from the taxpayers, so it's no different if the expense comes from the county, city, township, etc. This way, having one entity take care of the cost, it's much easier and more organized.

If a district should hold a special election in an off year though, like a school district asking for a referendum vote for example, the district asking for the vote pays the cost of the election.

And one more "cost" Tangen adds, he and other county employees will be missing the first weekend of deer hunting because Saturday they will be counting absentee ballots this year.

Ballot ordering

It's a guessing game of sorts, with some research and turnout history mixed in of course, as to how many ballots to purchase each year for an election.

Tangen said he analyzes the two previous elections -- general election for the November vote and primaries for the August vote -- to see how many ballots were ordered and what the voter turnout were those years.

The ballots cost 40 cents each so it's important cost wise to have some education behind the guess.

"I'd love to order 100 percent for each precinct and say 'here you go, you won't run out,'" he said. "The last thing you want to do is run out of ballots, but you also don't want to recycle $15,000 worth of ballots either."

And it's not like one generic ballot can be printed for everyone in the county either. Depending on the election, there can be up to 96 different ballot styles in Becker County. There are 79 for this year's election.

The differences come from various districts within the county. There are different school districts, different legislative districts, different county and city districts or wards and so on within the county. Plus, those different districts can overlap in some precincts and not in others.

There are also federal only and presidential only ballots for people no longer living in the United States, but this is their last known address and they want to vote for the federal or presidential candidates.

There are also absentee ballots on top of that.

"We go through the order four different times," Tangen said of the ballots. "Every ballot we bring in here is accounted for."

Ballots can only be ordered in groups of 25, so, for example, if there is one landowner in the county whose piece of land sits within various districts where it warrants a certain style of ballot, Tangen still has to order 25 ballots of that particular style even though there's only one registered voter there.

Tangen said he has run out of ballots in the past, too.

In a small district with a contested race that heated up in the last days leading to the election, more people than ever before turned out to vote. When that happens and the precinct runs out of ballots, Tangen said they have to make copies of the ballot and then hand count them.

Equipped to vote

The M-100 piece of equipment is what voters feed their ballots into after voting. It adds up the vote totals at each precinct.

The Automark is a machine that helps pretty much anyone vote independently.

The Automark scans a ballot and allows the voter to enlarge the type, have the ballot read to them, changes the contrast to white lettering on a black screen, provides arrows with Braille for the blind to navigate through the ballot, and has the ports for those in wheelchairs that can only communicate through electronic controls to plug into the machine.

"The intent is to have someone who has never voted independently" be able to vote on their own without assistance, Tangen said.

Once the voter has cast his or her vote, the Automark marks the ballot as instructed, prints it off, and the voter still must run the ballot through the M-100 to have their vote count.

The Automark doesn't save any information from the ballot; it's simply a printer.

Each of the 37 precincts in Becker County have both pieces of equipment, the M-100 and Automark. When purchased, the equipment cost about $500,000.

But, the efficiency of ballot counting has changed immensely. Tangen said he can remember former auditor Keith Brekken still counting ballots the next day after the election. Now results are usually in by 10 p.m. the night of the election.

Each election year, the county has to spend about $12,000 on software and for the equipment.

But, it could be more. It would normally cost about $12,000 on hardware each election year as well, but Tangen takes care of that himself.

"There is a lot of maintenance in-house now," he said.

He now knows how to strip the machines apart and rebuild them if needed, because to send the machines in for repairs is thousands of dollars more.

Those voting by absentee ballots can also utilize the Automark machines by checking to make sure there are no mistakes on their ballot, for instance if one race is left blank by accident.

If there is a mistake on an absentee ballot, once it's fed into the M-100 machine, those counting votes override any errors, therefore a vote may not get counted.

Testing, testing and more testing

Each machine, the M-100 and Automark, are tested twice before Election Day. The machines are then tagged for security, as are the small discs in the M-100 machines that will eventually hold the voting results on them.

"Testing is very intense," Tangen said.

The ballots and machinery are also in secured rooms during the election so nothing can be tampered with "so results are accurate."

Besides the equipment being tested, so are the people running the precincts.

Each precinct must be staffed with four election judges at all times. Each of those judges must go through a two-hour training each election year, and the head judge must go through three hours of training.

If there is a clerk at the election, they must go through four hours of training. If there are any poling places at a healthcare facility (like Sunnyside, Emmanuel, etc. where elderly or sick people can't get out to vote), that election judge must take five hours of training.

Those taking care of the absentee ballots must go though six hours of training.

Tangen provides the training for these judges. He and his election coordinator Tanya Hockett have to take 16 hours of training every two years.

One plus, he said, is that many of the people come back year after year to serve as election judges, so having that "valuable knowledge base" is helpful is teaching the new election judges.

Doesn't end after Nov. 6

After election night is all said and done, votes are tallied and candidates are celebrating their wins or wallowing in their defeat, the county election crew is just starting another portion of the task.

The registration books everyone must sign when they enter the voting location have to be scanned. That is how voting history is tracked. Not whom the public votes for of course, but who is voting.

Then, if there is any kind of recount or randomly audited votes, the process can run well into the winter months. On average though, it's still into January before the election is completed for the county.

Though the process is time consuming, it's one that's welcomed each election year for a change of pace.

"I enjoy the election years, the complexity of it," Tangen said. "There are so many different aspects to elections."

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.