Becker County is applying for a $76,500 state grant in hopes of upgrading its election equipment.

The money would come from an additional $2 million authorized by the state Legislature last year. It can be used toward a 50% match to pay for optical scan precinct counters and central counters or assisted voting devices. It will pay up to 75% of the cost of electronic rosters or poll books.

The grant application deadline is Jan. 31, and grants will be awarded March 31 -- with across-the-board reductions if more requests are received than funds available.

“We’re just trying to update our 2006 election equipment,” Becker County Auditor-Treasurer Mary Hendrickson said. “We got the M100 in 2006; the DS200 is now twice as fast,” she said. Any amount of grant funding would be helpful, but she hopes to get at least $24,000 -- enough for four additional optical scan precinct counters at $6,000 apiece.

If more than that become available, she would like to replace some of the 70-pound AutoMARK voting machines with lighter equipment. The AutoMARK ballot-marking devices are designed to provide privacy and accessibility to voters who are blind, vision-impaired or have a condition that makes it difficult or impossible to mark a ballot.

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They are sparsely used, perhaps once per precinct per election, Hendrickson said. And it’s not easy for election workers to haul the heavy AutoMARKs out to the precincts for an election and then back to the courthouse, where all election equipment is securely stored between elections, she said.

“They’re talking about something more like a laptop (to replace the AutoMARK). It’s not approved by the state yet, but we put it in the funding in hope we can use it in the autumn general election,” she said.

Sometimes simpler is better. There are now 13 lesser-populated Becker County precincts that use mail-in ballots exclusively, and “we’ve found that turnout is actually better,” Hendrickson said, “because everyone has a ballot.” A voter just has to fill it in and mail it to the courthouse.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said the state welcomes the help Minnesota has received from the federal government “to aid in cybersecurity, helping counties obtain the tools they need to make voting accessible for Minnesotans with disabilities, updating voting equipment, and more.”

Securing the integrity of elections “is a race without a finish line,” he added. “Some elections security watchers have said the funding came a year late and a billion dollars short, and there may be some truth to that. Periodic bouts of funding are helpful, but ongoing, dedicated funds could make a bigger impact on securing our elections. Still, with another round of funding soon becoming available, we will be able to continue this important work."

The grant funding that Becker County is applying for is in addition to the $7 million that was authorized by the Minnesota Legislature and distributed in 2017.

The ES&S Model 100 is a precinct-based, voter-activated ballot counter and vote tabulator that uses visible light scanning to count and record voter information from paper ballots. It is used in eastern and northern precincts in Becker County.

Mail ballot precincts mostly located in northwest and north central areas of Becker County were also counted with the Model 100, according to a statewide precinct map of election equipment used in 2018.

Becker County did not use any ePollbooks in the 2018 election.

Otter Tail, Hubbard and Clay counties all had at least some precincts using ePollbooks in 2018, according to Simon’s office.