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Getting to the bottom of the Hennepin County vote error

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Stack of ballots
An employee picks up a stack of ballots to be logged in and sealed after they were delivered from the city Brooklyn Center to the Hennepin County Government Center, Friday, Nov. 5, 2010, in Minneapolis, where the county's ballots will be guarded until the close gubernatorial election between Democrat Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer is resolved.
Jim Mone/AP

At the same time Hennepin County election officials are preparing for an anticipated recount in the Minnesota governor's race, they are also considering ways to prevent another Election Night reporting error.

A mistake on Election Night resulted in an inflated tally which appeared to boost Democrat Mark Dayton's lead over Republican Tom Emmer by about 60,000 votes. While the error only occured in the reporting of results, not the actually tally, state Republicans say they'll be paying close attention to how the county conducts its recount.

Unlike the 2008 U.S. Senate recount between Al Franken and Norm Coleman, Hennepin County will centralize all of the county's 470,000 ballots in one room. The room will be guarded 24-7 by sheriff's deputies.

County auditor Jill Alverson said the new measures are not a response to Republican criticism of the Election Night over-reporting error. 

"Even without the incident on Election Night we would have recommended that we handle the recount this way," she said.

Hennepin County election officials caught the error, but state Republicans like Gov. Tim Pawlenty don't sound like they're buying the County's explanation. Pawlenty took a swipe at Hennepin county on Sean Hannity's cable television show the night after the election.

Rachel Smith
Hennepin County elections manager Rachel Smith said that on Election Night, a technical glitch threw the county's total off, but there was no reason to doubt the individual precinct vote totals.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

In the room in the county government center where the Election Night blunder happened, MPR News asked Hennepin County elections manager Rachel Smith to demonstrate how the mistake occurred. 

She said most of the electronic vote collection and reporting is done by computer which leaves little opportunity for human error. On one side of the room are two PCs where elections staff load the absentee ballot totals from discs.

The next computer is connected to a modem which gathers ballot totals from individual precincts. Smith said a computer program automatically combines the in-person vote totals from the precincts, and the absentee numbers.

"And then once we have a group of precincts that are newly reported, we update our file," she said. "So the last computer is where we would do that creation of the file."

The mistake happened during the file update which occurred around 10 p.m. Smith said she can't rerun the program to demonstrate the process. Instead she displayed a screen-shot depicting the options the person who made the error had to choose from. 

The screen gave four choices: 'Replace mode beginning with the first', 'Add-to mode beginning with the first', 'Replace mode restarting,' or 'Add-to mode restarting.' 

Hennepin County poll error
This picture shows a Hennepin County computer where the errant report of poll returns was created. It shows the wrong button is selected; the top selection should have been pushed. As a result, the county temporarily reported inflated numbers during Election Night poll returns.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

The top choice, 'replace mode' was the correct choice. That option creates a new file by replacing the previous ballot counts with the new ones. But the screen shot shows that the worker chose the second option, the 'add-to' button, located maybe a few centimeters below the first button. In doing so, the previous ballot totals were combined with the new numbers, nearly doubling the correct number of votes.

The file was then sent to the secretary of state's office as an email attachment. She said her staff discovered the error about 45 minutes later and was eventually corrected by the secretary of state around 12:30 a.m.

"This was certainly unusual and hopefully will never happen again," she said.

Smith said her office will examine some new quality control measures to try to prevent this type of mistake from happening again. However, right now they are in the midst of auditing the election results. Smith said the results should be certified by the County Canvassing Board next week.