High turnout for a mid-term, experts say

Is it ready?
Head election judge Ellen Biales and judge Judith Gavin check ballot box tape to make sure it's ready.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

At 6 a.m. on Tuesday a handful of election judges arrived at Linwood Community Recreation Center in St. Paul, headed downstairs to the gymnasium, and transforced it to a polling place.

First head election judge Ellen Biales swore them in. "I solemnly affirm, that I will perform the duties of election judge according to law, " each said.

There's a lot to do in one hour before the first person can vote.

Building the booth
Election judges constructing voting booths.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

A few of the judges attach long metal legs to the bottom of blue satchels. Once opened they become voting booths -- a tall table with a three-sided privacy screen.

This voting precinct also has one of the AutoMark voting machines, which are new this year. Every precinct in the state got one. With the help of an automated screen and simulated voice, Automark assists disabled and visually impaired voters filled in the ovals on their ballot so the optical scanning machine could read it.

Judge Judith Gavin calls the AutoMark "a giant pen-marking machine." It is not an electronic voting machine.

"At the end it will print the ballot out. It gives you a chance to review it. And you still must bring it over to the ballot-counting machine," she said.

The gymnasium was ready to welcome the line of some 30 voters already queued up when the clock hit 7.

A voter in Moorhead
Mark Beedy, who lives in Moorhead, showed up to vote early on Election Day.
MPR Photo/Bob Reha

"I believe in the system of government. Sounds kinda hokey, but I believe in it," said Terry Speiker, who said she was anxious to cast her ballot in the congressional races and on the transportation funding amendment.

By most accounts, many of the 3,500 polling places across the state reported long lines, but few problems.

A voter in Minneapolis complained about a voter who spilled coffee on the ballot counter, which shut that machine down. Voters had to leave their ballots in a box and were assured by election judges their votes would be stay secret and counted later.

A Hennepin County voting specialist says he knows of just one machine problem out of the county's 852 voting machines.

Ron Schmidt votes
Ron Schmidt, Moorhead, votes at his polling place early on Election Day.
MPR Photo/Bob Reha

State elections officials say it's common for one or two machines to go on the fritz here and there during each election.

Most states in the U.S. have switched to electronic voting this year as part of a major investment through the Help America Vote Act, passed after the 2000 election. Minnesota is one of only five states still using a paper ballot.

Joe Mansky, elections manager for Ramsey County, and an authority on statewide election procedure and policy, says paper ballots are an important reason why Minnesota voters can feel confident their vote will count.

"Now, we count it on our optical scan systems, which is both faster and more accurate, frankly, than counting them all by hand. But at the end of the day, we have your ballot as our audit trail and we can use that to independently verify the results of the election," according to Mansky.

A new state law requires a random review of ballots throughout the state. Each county will select three or four precincts for a hand audit.

While the state's Secretary of State's office won't release voter turnout estimates, Mansky says it looks similar to the past two elections for governor where turnout was high. He says statewide, the number of people going to the polls could hit 2.3 million, about 62 percent of eligible voters.

In northern Minnesota, Beltrami County Auditor-Treasurer Kay Mack says many voting precincts in the county are using electronic voting equipment for the first time. She says things are going well, but there have been some minor problems.

"Ee've had just little things that we're able to troubleshoot, little error messages that happen. But we've been able to troubleshoot all of them and the machines seem to be working well and the results should be brought in with the judges and instantly transmitted to the state, so it's going to be a good evening."

Mack says local races, including a hotly-contested sheriff's race, are motivating lots of people to get to the polls.

Stearns County election officials reported heavy turnout in the St. Cloud area this morning. Dave Walz is the county's elections director.

Walz says some Stearns County precincts had a few minor glitches before the polls opened.

"Just getting the machines situated properly, and getting them plugged in and turned on and running. Sometimes you have to get the cards in just right in order to get them to go," Walz said.

Walz says the problems were taken care of before polls opened. He says the machines have been running smoothly ever since.

Pam Fuller, the election administrator in Olmstead County, reported only a minor inconvenience.

"A shortage of pens, we've had so many people in the polling places that they're just handing out pens and hopefully that's a good sign actually that people are getting out there and hopefully they're not walking off with the pens," said Fuller.

There's lots of speculation about what's driving the strong voter turnout. The statewide races are a draw. In some cases, competitive congressional races are a factor. For Tara Lenertz of Moorhead the motivation to vote is simple.

"If you don't vote, you don't have a right to complain and I also think if you expect anything to change you have to say what you feel," she said.

Change is a common reason given by several Moorhead voters. Brenda Sokolofsky says local and statewide races drew her to the polls.

"I guess the governor was one of my big ones; a lot of the judges and stuff, there wasn't a write-in candidate and there wasn't anybody going against them so that was pretty straight forward but I guess I'm curious to see where the governorship goes," Sokolofsky said.

Election officials say typically they'll see a surge of voters when people get off of work and then before the polls close at 8p.m.