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E-pollbook legislation likely, though enthusiasm has faded a bit

With another study ahead, it appears statewide use of the voting technology won’t be considered for at least another year.

DFL Rep. Carolyn Laine, center, believes the 2013 study came too soon.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

Lawmakers will likely move forward with limited electronic-pollbook legislation this session, but it appears that the sense of urgency behind the voting technology has faded a bit.

A state Senate committee passed legislation on Wednesday — a day after its House counterpart — that came out of a pollbook task force in late January. The task force recommended yet another study of electronic pollbooks during the 2014 mid-term elections and putting standards for pollbooks in state law.

The electronic pollbook systems consist of laptops or tablet computers installed with voting administration software that advocates say improves election speed, helps with accuracy and reduces some costs over the current paper pollbooks.

Rep. Steve Simon, who chairs the House Elections Committee, said he anticipates electronic pollbooks won’t be considered for statewide use for at least another year.

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“I would imagine that when we come back here in 2015 the Legislature will act one way or another,” Simon said. “There will be a fork in the road at that point.”

Lawmakers divided on how fast to move

But some lawmakers say Minnesota should be moving faster to adopt the potential next wave of election technology. And lawmakers, experts and advocates agree that pollbooks are beneficial to voters, poll workers and local government staff.

“Right now, the e-pollbook bill has more of a study framework,” Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, a former secretary of state and member of the task force said in an interview. “I think we are so beyond that. I mean, this has been studied to death, and we have this used in other states. It’s like, ‘C’mon, let’s get on with it.’ “

“Unless they want to study it to death for all I know,” she said with a laugh.

The proposed legislation would likely spend about $350,000 on the 2014 pollbook initiatives, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

But Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who chaired the task force, said in a recent interview that it’s important to ensure that pollbooks are cost-effective and that they fit into election administration trends.

It’s likely that many small townships, which make up about half of Minnesota’s voting precincts, wouldn’t make good use of electronic pollbooks.

And, Ritchie said, Western states have adopted — or are moving toward — a vote-by-mail system. “Where will Minnesota fit?” he asked, noting that many townships will likely move to vote by mail.

Ritchie seems less enthusiastic

“In this day and age, to propose massive changes in voting and massive changes in electronic technology that isn’t tested, proven, evaluated and then to put an accelerator on it and no money and say, ‘Jump over that cliff,’ ” Ritchie said. “I don’t know.”

That’s significantly less enthusiasm than Ritchie expressed in 2012, in the midst of the voting amendment debate, which would have pushed significant Republican-led reforms into Minnesota’s election system.

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Then, Ritchie and Gov. Mark Dayton touted electronic pollbooks as an alternative to voters showing a photo ID. “We believe this is a solution that takes a very small investment, but an investment that takes us into the future,” Ritchie said in early March 2012.

Effective DemocracyNow, with the defeat of the proposed constitutional amendment, people ask Ritchie: “ ‘What’s broken here, buddy? What’s broken?’ And I don’t have a good answer,” he said, referring to Minnesota’s election system.

Max Hailperin, a professor at Gustavus Adolphus College who served on the task force, said that as the fervor over possible voter fraud has receded, putting pollbooks in precincts across the state has made less sense.

“Where [Ritchie] was at one time thinking pollbooks might have a broader role was in providing some reassurance for what at that time were some fairly exaggerated fears of Election Day impostors or people improperly using the election system,” Hailperin said.

But that doesn’t appear to be playing out nationally, according to Doug Chapin, an elections expert at the University of Minnesota.

“They may have gained momentum in Minnesota because of Voter ID but that’s not the case elsewhere,” Chapin wrote in an email, noting that pollbooks are generally seen as a valuable tool in making voting more efficient.

E-pollbook advantages cited

The issues don’t overlap very much because pollbooks are designed to ease election administration, while Voter ID was meant to verify identities.

Pollbooks have a few core uses, according to the task force’s January report: making sure voters are registered and haven’t already voted in the current election, allowing for the collection of voter history after the election, and creating an audit trail. They also can be used for Election Day registration.

“What we want to do is get rid of the phenomenon that everyone has seen at the grocery store,” Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky said after Tuesday’s House hearing. “You go there — whatever line you’re in is the wrong one. You never pick the short line or the one that gets you through faster. The pollbooks enable us to get rid of that whole phenomenon, because every line is the right line.”

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DFL Rep. Carolyn Laine, a task force member who is carrying the electronic pollbook bill this session, believes the 2013 study came too soon.

“It actually will be the real study,” Laine said of the planned 2014 pilot project. “There are some politically who wanted to go forth. They just wanted to go forth and do this now, and one particular senator wanted to … do this right now and carried that push. It was too soon. We could only do a little bit. We did that. Now it’s time to do it for real.”

Pollbook costs are an issue

Sen. Katie Sieben, who heads the election committee in the upper chamber, said she expects the bill to advance since it drew bipartisan support on Wednesday.

Moving forward with pollbooks in general is important, she said in an earlier interview.

“Resources are always a concern, and putting a pollbook in every precinct in Minnesota would be very expensive, but I do think that moving that direction in terms of digitizing the pollbooks [is a good idea],” Sieben said. “Hopefully it will help improve check-in times those types of things, be more convenient for voters.”

“It’s expensive so it may take a while,” she added.

Kiffmeyer, a Republican, said she and DFL Sen. Terri Bonoff want to move forward more quickly.

“I’m a good supporter of electronic pollbooks,” Kiffmeyer said. “I think they provide great service to citizens coming in to vote, to the election judges, to the whole system getting data back in a more efficient matter. So I think there are a lot of good things about it.”

Bonoff said she had hoped to go further with the recommendations.

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“I’m always a little faster for the action,” Bonoff said in an earlier interview. “Government tends to move at its own pace.”

“For my own perspective, I’m more committed to it than ever because I think it’s one key to modernizing our election system and making it more efficient,” she said after Wednesday’s vote.

Bipartisan support necessary

Bipartisan legislative support is key, because Gov. Mark Dayton has said he won’t sign election-law changes without it.

Rep. Tim Sanders, Republican lead on the House Elections Committee, said he thinks both parties can come together to pass some sort of pollbook legislation this session.

“Let’s get this study done so that we don’t have to come back and do another study, another pilot,” Sanders said at the hearing on Tuesday.

 “We’ve had pilot projects. We’ve had a task force on this issue. We’re having another pilot, another study, which is fine. This is something we want to get right, but I don’t want to study this thing to death,” he said. “Let’s figure out how we best can move forward and move forward quickly.”

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.