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Party at the polls: Counties get money for new equipment

Becker County Auditor-Treasurer Mary Hendrickson checks out the AutoMARK voting machine, which helps those with sight or hearing problems.

Time to upgrade that aging election equipment: Counties including Becker, Otter Tail, Wadena and Hubbard are taking advantage of $7 million in state matching grant money.

It provides up to a 50 percent match for mandatory equipment, such as optical scan precinct counters, optical scan central counters, or assistive voting devices, and up to a 75 percent match for electronic rosters.

Becker County asked for, and was granted $71,000 for new equipment. That means the county will have to kick in another $71,000 towards the total purchase price.

"We will be using it for voting equipment, we will not be purchasing (electronic) poll books at this time," said Becker County Auditor-Treasurer Mary Hendrickson.

Otter Tail County asked for $405,000 and was granted $169,000. That was kind of disappointing, said Otter Tail Auditor-Treasurer Wayne Stein. "I was hoping for the $250,000 to $300,000 range," he said. "We'll have discussions and come up with a plan on how to proceed with it."

His priority is to obtain new DS200 ballot counter and vote tabulator machines, since some of the old M100 units are starting to show their age. "The scanner bars start to go on the older ones, they can't read ballots," he said. The DS200 also has a larger (12-inch) screen that helps voters and election officials recognize and correct a problem more easily, he said. The new machines will be prioritized by precinct size. "You just get a bigger bang for the buck to put the counters at the biggest precincts," Stein said. Same goes for the electronic poll books.

The DS200 does have some enhanced security features, but security is less of a concern with the ballot counters, since they aren't connected to the Internet and its legion of hackers.

The electronic poll registration books are more of a concern, but Otter Tail County will create its own access points at each location. "There'll be no open lines, we'll create our own—that's how we'll handle it," he said. Even if a hacker were to gain entry to a poll book and erase names of registered voters, for example, people could re-register and vote on Election Day if necessary.

"I appreciate the fact that the Legislature appropriated some money to help us out," Stein said. "The grant application process is an opportunity to let the state know our needs and maybe there will be some more appropriations in the future."

Counties and cities requested $13.3 million for new election equipment, nearly double the $7 million available, said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon.

Wadena County asked for $48,000 and was granted $46,000. Joy Weyer, the election coordinator at the Wadena County Auditor's Office, said the county could have requested a larger grant amount—it could have asked for up to $5,000 per precinct (or $125,000 total). But the state made it clear that it would set the grant amount at about $1,700 per precinct if there were a lot of applicants.

As it turned out, there was a lot of interest: The state received grant applications from 85 (of 87) counties and 17 cities. Of these, 59 requested about $5.1 million in matching funds for electronic rosters and 97 requested $8.2 million in matching funds for voting equipment.

The state will pay 75 percent of the cost of the electronic poll books and half the cost of new voting equipment.

"When the money is available, you have to take advantage of it," Weyer said. The grant money can be used only to buy new equipment, not to repair or maintain existing equipment, she said.

That wasn't always the case. "Wadena County did a great job of stretching its Help America Vote Act money (passed by Congress in 2002)," she said. "I'm amazed how long (former election coordinator) Rosalie Miller was able to make it useable."

She hopes to get the new equipment purchased before the general election Nov. 6, and ideally before the Aug. 14 primary election, but she's realistic about the chances of that happening. "Everybody in the state will be trying to do the same thing," she said with a laugh. "We'll see how it goes."

Counties have until February of next year to use the grant money, or it goes back to the state.

Other counties in the area also received grant funds: Hubbard requested $190,000 and got about $71,000.

Todd asked for $200,000 and got $74,000.

Mahnomen asked for about $44,000 and got just over $35,000, and Clay requested $159,000 and received $108,000, according to the Secretary of State's Office.

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