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Minnesota's election system in the spotlight

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Ballot counting machine
Ballot counting scanners are locked into plastic crates that secure the ballots after they are counted. The ballots are removed from the crates and stored securely on election night.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

With the margin of control of the U.S. Senate hanging in the balance, attention is turning to the nearly 3 million ballots voters cast on Tuesday in the race between Republican Norm Coleman, Democrat Al Franken and Dean Barkley of the Independence Party.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie says Minnesota is ready for the political spotlight that's about to shine on the state's U.S. Senate race.

Ramsey County canvassers
Ramsey County's canvassing board met in St. Paul on Friday to certify the results of the 2008 election. Each had to sign a document certifying the results were correct.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

"We actually have a chance in Minnesota to reverse some of the damage that Florida 2000 did to the trust that Americans overall have in our system," said Ritchie. "Recounts are normal. They are very important, they happen all the time. In Minnesota, we do them and we do them well."

Which isn't to say that Minnesota and its voting systems haven't been without its problems. 

In a widely discussed incident this fall, voting officials in Pontiac, Mich., said their pre-election testing turned up inconsistencies in their vote totals. Oakland County uses the same kind of ballot counting machines that many counties in Minnesota use. 

The county clerk in Michigan wrote a letter to the federal Elections Assistance Commission 11 days before the November election. 

She said her office and the manufacturer had determined dirty sensors were the problem.

Mark Ritchie addresses the press
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's office is in the spotlight as it handles the recount in the U.S. Senate race.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

Earlier this year, voting officials in Sacramento, Calif., decided not to use similar vote counters after their pre-election tests also went awry.  They found color-coded ballots used in the February primary weren't being counted correctly. 

Jill LaVine, the registrar of voters in Sacramento County, said part of the problem was the way the ballots were designed.

"With that combination of a printing problem, and we did discover that our read heads were dirty, so it wasn't consistently rejecting every single ballot," said LaVine. "At that point, we don't have time to go back and reprint or to take care of these machines. So we just pulled all the machines, and we did not use them at all for that election."

LaVine said her staff had the machines fixed, and created better ballots for a June election, as well as the polling earlier this week. 

She said pre-election tests showed the machines would count votes accurately in the general election.

The company that makes the equipment, Elections Systems and Software, is one of the nation's leading suppliers of voting technology. 

Protected machines
Ramsey County cleans its vote countin scanners each year. They are stored in zippered bags to keep dust and debris from interfering with the optical scanning heads inside.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Another company, Diebold, supplies similar equipment to Ramsey and other counties in Minnesota.

In an e-mail to Minnesota Public Radio, ES&S said company technicians had looked into the matter in Michigan and found that lack of maintenance and mistakes in configuring the machines were responsible. 

ES&S said it found the machines were working properly.

In Minnesota, there is no evidence of problems such as those in other states.

Joe Mansky, elections manager in Ramsey County, said he's found optical scanners to be highly accurate.

"I have on occasion run 10,000 ballots through that were properly marked. Our voting equipment counted it correctly every time. 100 percent of the time," said Mansky.

Veterans of recount efforts say that's often the case -- that discrepencies are usually the result of human error at the polls, rather than bad technology. 

The human error can range from simply transposing digits when writing down ballot totals to destroying votes outright. 

Six years ago, an election judge in Austin, Minn., burned a handful of ballots in her fireplace at home after an apparent misunderstanding on election night. 

Chris Sautter is considered one of the nation's leading experts on voting recounts and has seen many such problems.

He handled the closest federal election ever, a recount of Democratic Congressman Frank McCloskey's re-election in southern Indiana in 1984. McCloskey won by four votes. 

Sautter also represented the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in the crucial recount of votes in Florida's Broward County in 2000.

"In almost every election, there's a bag full of ballots that somebody finds in a recount," said Sautter. "When you're ahead, you argue against it, but usually they're properly secured. They just were overlooked in some way."

In Minnesota, the respective Senate campaigns look like they're already starting the search for those ballots, if there are any out there. 

County canvassing boards across the state are already certifying their results ahead of a Monday deadline. The state will certify its results Nov. 18.