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New ballot-marking equipment gets thumbs-up from Becker County

For years, the county has depended on AutoMARK machines to provide a way for handcapped people to mark ballots in private. Prior to that, voters who needed help had to bring along a friend or relative to mark their ballots for them, or ask an election judge for help.

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Becker County Auditor-Treasurer Mary Hendrickson checks out an AutoMARK ballot-marking machine at the Becker County Courthouse in 2019. The AutoMARKs are now being replaced with new, lighter ballot-marking equipment for the handicapped.
Nathan Bowe/Tribune

Voters in Becker County who can’t mark an optical scan ballot because of physical impairments will have new equipment to work with, thanks in part to a $58,000 state grant to help upgrade election equipment.

For years, the county has depended on AutoMARK machines to provide a way for handicapped people to mark ballots in private. Prior to that, voters who needed help had to bring along a friend or relative to mark their ballots for them, or ask an election judge for help.

The Becker County Board on March 15 agreed to match the $58,000 state grant, and spend a total of $98,000 in American Rescue Plans dollars to replace outdated voting equipment and upgrade software from 2006.

That includes buying 30 new OmniBallot tablets to replace the heavy AutoMARK machines. Like the existing equipment, the new machines will simply mark paper ballots for people who can’t do it themselves – they won’t tabulate the votes.

“These little tablets don’t count anything,” said Becker County Auditor-Treasurer Mary Hendrickson. “They mark a paper ballot and then the paper ballot gets counted.”

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Ballot-marking machines give a voter privacy and independence if they cannot, or choose not to vote using a pen, according to the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office:

“After you put your paper ballot into the machine, it will display your ballot in large print or with a high-contrast background. It can read the ballot to you through headphones, with or without the screen on. It will prompt you to make choices on a braille keypad, touchscreen (if applicable), or sip-and-puff device.

“After you make your choices, the machine will fill in the correct ovals on your ballot and return your ballot to you. You can then place the ballot into the ballot box,” according to the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office.

OmniBallot is not an online voting technology. It always generates a paper ballot for tabulation, and the OmniBallot portal is a document storage system that stores ballots in a federally approved cloud, according to the company’s website.

The OmniBallot cloud (AWS) has been FedRAMP approved for use by nearly every federal agency, including the FBI and the Department of Defense. Every voter has the option to print and mail their ballot.

The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) is a government-wide program that provides a standardized approach to security assessment, authorization, and continuous monitoring for cloud products and services.

Like the existing AutoMARK machines, the new OmniBallot tablets will be used in precincts across Becker County, as well as at the courthouse. Seventeen precincts have gone to all-mail voting, and all those that haven’t will receive the new equipment, Hendrickson said.

Voters in those 17 mail-in precincts can still vote in person at the courthouse, where the new OmniBallot tablets will also be available if needed.

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“None of our (vote counting) equipment can be put online, it doesn’t even have the capability of being put online, absolutely not,” Hendrickson said in answer to a question from Commissioner Ben Grimsley at the March 15 County Board meeting.

Hendrickson looked across the room to the county’s information technology director, Stacie White, for affirmation, and White agreed.

“None of our (vote-counting) equipment ever touches the Internet,” Hendrickson added. The only time the Internet is ever involved, she added, is when the county sends election results to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office, and there are paper ballots to back up every vote, for auditing purposes.

That’s a lot more than some states can say: Louisiana, for instance, uses only electronic voting machines with no paper ballot backup at all.

Other states, including Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey, Tennessee and Texas, use hand-marked paper ballots, but also use electronic voting machines that have no paper ballot backup, according to the online elections site Ballotpedia, based on voting equipment used in the 2020 general election.

“The conspiracy theory is that something in the machines is connected online and the results get changed,” said Commissioner Barry Nelson. “That’s not an unreasonable thing to be concerned about — even doorbells are online these days.”

Minnesota’s paper-ballot system is considered the gold standard for election security, since the ballots can easily be tracked, recounted and audited — something that can be a concern in those states that don’t have paper ballots or paper backups, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said in an earlier story.

The paper ballot “is a comfort,” Grimsley said. But making sure new election equipment is completely secure “should be a concern moving forward,” he added.

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The bulk of the $142,500 total cost is for the 30 OmniBallot tablets, which cost $115,350.

Another $6,750 will go for hard-sided, stackable transport cases. Since all election equipment is kept in a secure room in the courthouse when not in use, it must be transported to and from the polling places for each election. And another $6,750 will pay for the software license fees. The rest of the cost is for printer toner, thumb drives, recycling the old AutoMARK equipment, training, shipping, and similar things.

OmniBallot is one of four ballot-marking devices in use in Minnesota, and is now used in Cass, Hubbard, Todd, Douglas, Blue Earth, Isanti, Itasca, Jackson, Lac qui Parle, Lake of the Woods, Meeker, Pipestone, Polk, Rock, Roseau, Swift, Waseca and Wilkin counties, according to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office.

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