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Should Minnesota adopt electronic pollbooks for elections?

Should Minnesota adopt electronic pollbooks for elections?
MinnPost photo by James Nord
A state task force is investigating potential legislation on electronic pollbooks, and a separate pilot project will use the digital tools in select polling places for next month’s elections.

Electronic pollbooks will significantly improve many aspects of voting in Minnesota, but questions remain about the effectiveness and costs of a fledgling technology that many consider the future of elections nationwide.

That’s the prevailing view of state and local officials and national experts about the evolving technology, which eventually could replace paper versions of voter data, such as verification and identification information and precinct assignments.

The systems consist of laptops or tablets loaded with voting administration software that are meant to improve election speed, accuracy and reduce some costs over the current paper pollbooks, according to advocates.

A state task force is investigating potential legislation on electronic pollbooks, and a separate pilot project will use the digital tools in select polling places for next month’s elections.

Many officials have said it’s too early to judge the technology because there haven’t been many usable tests so far. They agree, however, that the basic premise is an improvement over current practice.

“I’m absolutely confident that they’ll prove to be better,” GOP Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, a former Minnesota secretary of state, said of electronic pollbooks. “The value is to the voter because it can help speed up their voting process.”

Others, though, have raised questions about costs and security issues.

Here are some of the advantages most frequently cited by supporters:

  • A decrease in lines and wait times for voters at the polling place and the ability to redirect voters to the correct location if they show up at the wrong precinct.
  • Increased efficiency for election judges on the front end of voter registration and more accurate records after the polls have closed.
  • Significantly less back-end work for local officials, who currently spend weeks after Election Day manually inputting voter information into the state system.

Effective DemocracyExperts say that digital pollbooks are the future of voting technology, but expectations of exactly what they’ll do are changing over time.

It appears the digital pollbook recommendations that come out of the task force will be significantly different from the compromise Secretary of State Mark Ritchie initially proposed in 2012 as an alternative to a proposed Voter ID constitutional amendment that eventually was defeated.

As cities and counties continue to experiment with electronic pollbooks, the trend will likely spread across the nation, University of Minnesota elections expert Doug Chapin said. A presidential task force looking at election procedures likely also will spur adoption, he said.

“I do think things are headed that way,” Chapin said, “Just because of the way elections are evolving in this country.”

Minnesota’s first experiment

Since 2009, Minnetonka has been the only city in Minnesota using electronic pollbooks for Election Day registration on a trial basis.

City Clerk David Maeda, a member of the legislatively approved task force, said that the technology has been a hit among polling place staff. The city used digital pollbooks in 18 of its 27 precincts in 2010 and 18 of its 23 precincts in 2012.

Minnetonka staffers scan a voter’s photo ID, which populates their information into a computerized voting application. Then the technology confirms that the citizen’s address is in the precinct. If it isn’t, a poll worker can print out a map with directions to the correct location.

The electronic pollbooks help ensure that voting requirements, such as age, are met. They also track how many people someone vouches for and automate the registration process, according to a city report. The system, Maeda said, also stops the human error of allowing a voter to cast a ballot at the wrong polling place.

DFL Sen. Terri BonoffMinnPost photo by James NordDFL Sen. Terri Bonoff: "It would be downloaded from the secretary of state. Same-day registrations could be uploaded back in, and it would make the whole election process much more efficient."

“For me, once I saw what it could do, the elimination of the mistakes I mentioned … it was a no-brainer,” Maeda said in an interview. “Our election judges just love using it because it helps them do their jobs better.”

The electronics costs behind pollbooks, however, are often expensive. Maeda said Minnetonka used 18 laptops it had available to run pollbook software, minimizing new costs. In the long run, the move could allow the city to hire fewer election judges, he said.

But not in the near future.

“Short term, I wouldn’t dare do that until we really see efficiencies gained in the process,” he said.

In addition to shorter waits at the polls for voters and easier procedures for poll workers, county elections officials could see significant reductions in post-election manual work inputting data. Maeda said those cost savings would be much more significant than those for his city.

Ginny Gelms, acting elections manager at Hennepin County, said her department employs more than 20 temporary workers full time for 12 weeks inputting the data.

“It is a lengthy process. It is expensive,” she said of the input work. “For eight hours a day, you’re staring at page after page of barcodes,” Gelms added. “It’s very easy to make a mistake.”

Digital pollbooks, if properly linked to the secretary of state’s statewide system, would allow the data to be transferred digitally.

During the Nov. 5 elections, lawmakers will be visiting precincts where the pilot pollbook project will take place. About 20 precincts in five cities are participating in the project.

The task force will use that information to put together a report for lawmakers by the end of January.

DFL Sen. Terri Bonoff, who represents Minnetonka, said she hopes the task force’s recommendations produce widespread use of electronic pollbooks.

“It would look just like it’s going to look like this time in Minnetonka, only it wouldn’t just be in a few precincts. It would be in all the precincts, and it would be easy for them,” Bonoff, a member of the task force, said in an interview. “It would be downloaded from the secretary of state. Same-day registrations could be uploaded back in, and it would make the whole election process much more efficient.”

Serious questions remain

Although many see significant benefits to voters and local officials, electronic pollbooks come with some serious questions.

For one, it’s unclear if the large upfront costs — which strapped local governments would likely have to bear — would ever be recouped. In addition to computer hardware, vendors also charge expensive software licenses for the pollbook software.

Pollbook vendors told Minnesota’s task force last month about some of the costs, which can run to $1,500 for a piece of equipment with needed add-ons, plus yearly fees.

Maeda said Minnetonka isn’t saving money by using them. Even though it used city laptops, the suburb was forced to purchase printers for the pollbooks, which added to the cost.

Gelms said Hennepin County wouldn’t be able to fully recoup the extra costs by decreasing the number of back-end temps it hired after elections.

“We would see some cost savings but not enough to offset the whole cost of purchasing the e-rosters,” Gelms said. “We would need to have some support from the Legislature in terms of money for that.”

On top of cost, there aren’t clear standards for electronic pollbooks right now, Chapin, the elections expert, said.

He also said that there are concerns that digital pollbooks could be prone to tampering or malfunctions.

Deputy Secretary of State Beth Fraser said that electronic pollbooks are expected to improve accuracy but noted that some of the same issues with paper rosters would remain, such as requiring election workers to select the correct voter record when using the system.

Gregory Miller, chief development officer and co-executive director of the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation, which is building a pollbook application, agreed that there are some key security issues.

There should be standards, too, for how computers communicate with each other in order to standardize voter data transfer.

In addition to technical security concerns, Miller criticized the cost of current digital pollbooks. He called the current prices “fairly nonsensical,” adding, “It doesn’t have to be that bad.”

GOP Sen. Mary KiffmeyerMinnPost photo by James NordGOP Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer: “The value is to the voter because it can help speed up their voting process.”

Miller’s group is working with jurisdictions across the country on the electronic pollbook technology.

Currently at least 14 states permit their use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Chapin points to Cerro Gordo County in Iowa as an example of a particularly savvy jurisdiction when it comes to electronic pollbooks. Officials there developed their own technology, called Precinct Atlas, to assist voters.

Many other counties have adopted the technology after seeing its success, he said.

“In some ways, Precinct Atlas or the Minnetonka pilot are the purest example of what the Supreme Court called the ‘laboratories of democracy,’ ” he said. “I think that tends to be the best way for innovations like this to spread.”

State’s next steps uncertain

For most lawmakers and officials, it’s too early to say with much certainty what will happen in Minnesota when it comes to pollbooks.

Kiffmeyer isn’t even sure there should be legislation that comes from the legislative task force.

State legislators and local officials also disagree over who should pay for the technology if the state decides to encourage its use.

“I think that e-rosters generally would bring a lot of benefits to our election administration,” Gelms said. “It would be equally difficult to ask local governments to take on the cost, because it would not pay for itself.”

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed doubt there would be any money for elections appropriations next session. If legislation moves forward, it would need bipartisan support to secure the governor’s signature.

Right now, there’s bipartisan support for keeping state money out of it.

“We don’t have any money right now,” Sen. Katie Sieben, chairwoman of the Senate elections committee, said in an interview. “It’s not a budget year, so I think it’s really tough. I don’t know.”

It’s also unclear what the technology will look like. When Democrats originally supported the measure nearly two years ago, it was in an attempt to thwart Republicans’ Voter ID efforts.

But lawmakers heard this week that it would be extremely difficult to use the pollbooks for identity verification. Facial recognition software isn’t close to being ready to work in real time at the scale officials are looking for, and most agree that poll workers shouldn’t be forced to scan photos and check them against voters.

“Each meeting I’ve walked away with a different sense of how things were going,” Bonoff said after Monday’s task force meeting. “From today, I would say that a dose of realism hit in … because I had always thought we really could work out a scenario whereby a driver’s license photo could be used as a means of verification.”

Kiffmeyer was incredulous at the idea of using facial recognition software in the polling place. “Are you kidding me?” she asked after the meeting.

Fraser, deputy secretary of state, said it was concerning that even the Minnesota Department of Public Safety was having issues with the facial recognition software.

With so many unknowns, it will be at least a few months before lawmakers start staking out their stances on the specifics of digital pollbooks.

Sieben said she supports modernizing Minnesota’s election system but wants to wait for more information. Any changes to election law will have to move through her committee, which will likely tackle campaign finance changes and online voter registration next year.

Effective Democracy is a year-long series of occasional reports supported by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, as part of a grant made to MinnPost and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

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Comments (14)

Use US National Identity Card tied to a national database+photos

No reason the cost should not drop into the Chromebook range ($250-$300). Volume production reduces costs significantly. Built-in scanner of the US National Identity Card to meet the claims of the conservatives for Voter ID. It is all existing and well-understood technology, so it is not something new. Just putting together the package that delivers the desired information.

Voting Records

As an IT guy and a voting judge for 20+ years, I can see a lot of benefits and pitfalls with this system. It has the potential to speed up the roster process, although in my precinct that's not a huge bottleneck. During general elections we have a large line out the door when the polls open as a lot of people want to vote before work. Even with paper registers we can get people through the line faster than they can mark their votes. So we have to hold people up outside the door while we wait for voting booths to open up.

The electronic registration process will help speed up people who have updated their drivers license, but most of the people coming in the door have an outdated license and utility bills to document their registration. There won't be any scanning for them.

Another item to consider is many of my judges are elderly and retired. They don't have the most up-to-date computer skills and operating a computer can be a challenge. Any hardware we deploy would have to be touchscreen enabled and simple to use. No booting up a laptop, logging into Windows7, and digging through the start menus to find the application.

I would definitely not be in favor of using a laptop for the process like Minnetonka does. That leads to too many potential problems with programs running in the background that could interfere with the voting process. My inclination would be to go with a clean single-use piece of hardware that is only used for voting and nothing else. I know cities will want to get the most value out of this expensive hardware and use it for other purposes throughout the year, but the voting process is too important to run the risk that the hardware could get compromised with a virus.

Another factor and expense to consider: if the officials want real time records and registration, that means hooking each device and polling place up with wireless.

There are just a few of the considerations that popped into my head at first blush. I'll definitely keep an eye on this as it works its way through the legislative process.

So informed and reasonable

Todd, it's comments like yours that give me hope for the possibilities of commenting. If they have legislative hearings on this, I hope you are one of the people who testifies.

Computers

We have such faith in computers. I wonder where that comes from.

Computers

Actually we don't have undying faith in computers, which is why Minnesota still has a paper-based system at its core. At the end of the day you can still go back to the ballots themselves, look them over, and count them up. With a strictly computer based system you don't have that option.

I'm happy to see though that Hennepin County has finally upgraded their optical scanners. The old ones were pretty slow and getting pretty cantankerous these past couple of election cycles. And they bought a central scanner that can do mass quantities in a short period of time instead of feeding them into the machine one at a time.

Technology isn't the be-all-to-end-all when it comes to elections, but it does have its role in the process.

Hey wait a minute!

"Minnetonka staffers scan a voter’s photo ID, which populates their information into a computerized voting application."

Didn't we just defeat a proposed amendment that would have required voter ID?

What gives here?

Yes

It's the first thing I thought of as well. They're going to scan drivers licenses with out-dated addresses or the wrong name if someone got married or whatever...

If they decided to go the route of doing face matching, I would want to be there to see the train wreck. Going through Customs in June I got pulled into a special line because my face somehow doesn't match my face as shown on my passport. There's nothing that makes a law-abiding citizen feel like becoming a subversive faster than treating them like a miscreant.

Face Painting

Yeah, facial recognition is one of those technologies that's not quite ready for prime time. Give it another 5 - 10 years though and it'll probably be there. It's just a matter of getting enough computing power to match up all the data points and a database that's large enough and fast enough to handle the queries. Get that in place and then we're off to the races.

Just think back a few years ago about how crappy the voice recognition software was. Now you can talk to your iPhone and Siri will look up the info for you. And sometimes it'll even be right.

(Try asking her how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood. She has about 50 amusing answers coded in.)

Amendment

The problem with the amendment is it required the ID without any mechanism behind it to get the job done. The legislature's argument was "just trust us to work out the details at a later date," which naturally didn't instill a lot of people with confidence.

One can assume that the Republican-led legislature would try to implement a bill similar to the one they proposed the year before. I read through the entire bill and the voter ID portion of it was one of the least worrisome portions of the proposal. The bill as written actually wanted to take out many of the checks and balances in the registration process, the very ones we use now to prove someone is who they are. Needless to say, it was not a well thought out piece of legislature.

I'm not a big fan of using a drivers license as a voter ID card. Although the cards are getting better, we've all seen how easy it is for a 20 year old to go buy a beer with a fake license. Personally, I think the system works just fine as is. But if people feel an ID really is important, then we need to come up with a system that can't easily be faked or hacked. Otherwise we're just spending a lot of money for no real gain. If you read between the lines in the article above you can see that's where the discussion went. Undoubtedly someone brought up a facial recognition system as the fool-proof way to go and Kiffmeyer had a mini meltdown about it, thinking that it's a completely ridiculous proposal.

If you're going to do this though, do it right and not with some half measure that'll be hacked within twenty minutes.

bipartisan support?

Why do we need Bipartisan Support for electronic pollbooks?

Mark Richie will do as he pleases...

"The secretary of state launched the Web-based system this fall and insists prior state law gave him the clearance he needed. Some Democrats, including Gov. Mark Dayton, say Ritchie should have gotten explicit approval from lawmakers first." (pionner press)

Support

Because the hardware for this project will require a significant outlay in public funds to put it together. I'm guessing the new registration website was an in-house project using staff time that's already paid for, not to mention saving government entities significant amounts of time and money.

The process has not changed one iota, just how people access the process.

Electronic bunko

We don't need fast results. We need honest, accurate tallies. Hand counted ballots with on site verification have served us well through the ages. Any shift away from a verifiable paper trail leave us at the mercy of partisan code writers, and activist judges.

Different "electronic bunko"

This article isn't about equipment used for counting ballots.

This article is about the paper pollbooks currently being used in most precincts to check voters in and the possible switch to putting that information into an electronic device rather than those great big pollbooks you see the election judges flipping through when you get to the head of the line.

Just to keep things straight . . . . . . . .

Clarification

Just a slight clarification: ballots, at least in Hennepin County, have not been hand counted for decades. The one exception have been the write-in ballots, which we had to count one at a time. (Thankyouverymuch to all the boneheads who would put in Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus.) Even that though is going away with the new scanners that are good enough to pick up the handwriting.

Also to be perfectly clear: the paper ballots are not going away. The underlying system has not changed, just the way the ballots are processed.