How a ballot becomes a vote in Minnesota

MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Bloomington election judge Susan Knox performs a public accuracy test of voting equipment.

By Tuesday night, hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans will have waited in Election Day lines, voted by mail, or visited an early voting center to mark up ballots that will help determine the outcome of an election that’s dominated news cycles for the better part of two years.

When polls close in Minnesota, the election will have passed out of the hands of these voters and into the hands of election judges and officials, who help get the results counted and reported back to the public in just a few hours (we hope).

How does a ballot become a vote?

Before Election Day

The process of ensuring an accurate vote count begins long before Election Day in Minnesota. In the weeks leading up to Tuesday, every vote counting machine at more than 3,500 voting locations across Minnesota is required to undergo tests to make sure they’re not messing up vote counts. At these tests, election judges also check basic logistical things: does the tabulator jam when you feed ballots into it? Does the results printer print clearly?

In addition to preliminary tests, each election jurisdiction that uses electronic voting equipment is also required to hold a public accuracy test, which anyone may attend. At least two election judges, representing both major parties, are on hand to observe.

At one such public test in Bloomington last week, veteran election judges Susan Knox and Bill Bedor put a tabulating machine through its paces, feeding in test ballots, printing out a long receipt of results and comparing them to the marks on the originals. Everything checked out fine, and the machines were deemed ready for real ballots.

Voting

Anybody who’s voted in person on Election Day in Minnesota is familiar with this drill: After checking in at your neighborhood polling place, you fill out your ballot and feed it into a tabulating machine.

This is the first presidential election in which Minnesotans have been allowed to vote early or absentee with no excuse. Already as of Tuesday morning, a record 650,800 early votes had been accepted, according to the Secretary of State’s office. Minnesota has an estimated 3.9 million eligible voters.

In Minnesota, absentee voting begins 46 days before the election. In order to be counted, mailed absentee ballots are required to arrive to be counted — not just be postmarked — by Election Day.

Bloomington City Clerk Janet Lewis
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Bloomington City Clerk Janet Lewis observing the testing of voting machines.

Whether they’re mailed or dropped off in person, early absentee ballots are put in security envelopes and kept under lock and key, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said. Additionally, many counties’ policies require at least two people to enter — never one person alone — any area where absentee ballots are kept. Since all those votes are just sitting there, voters can technically claw back their votes up to a week before Election Day.

“You can ask for it back and it’s destroyed and you can either get another absentee ballot,  or vote in person,” Simon said.

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A week out, county officials are allowed to open the envelopes and start feeding the ballots into vote tabulators. Under a law passed in May, that’s also when Minnesotans are now allowed to vote at early voting centers and feed their ballots into tabulators themselves.

Counting votes

When the polls close at the end of the night — and not before — vote counting machines across Minnesota begin to tabulate both the absentee votes and the ones cast on Election Day. When they’re finished, each machine spits out a long paper receipt that shows the breakdown of votes marked on the ballots within it.

Officials compare the number of paper ballots to the number of electronic votes to make sure every ballot was counted. If things line up OK, the precinct receipts are delivered, either physically or through an encrypted system, to the county to be reported to the state electronically, combined with the absentee vote receipt, which county officials also compare to physical ballots for accuracy. Since the two are combined, the results from absentee ballots don’t show up on the Secretary of State’s website all at once in a given race.

In Minnesota, voting machines are prohibited from being connected to the internet while voting or tabulating takes place. After tabulating machines’ receipts have been printed, an Internet connection is used to transmit county results to the state. Simon assures voters the connection is secure.

“The county reports those results to us through an encrypted communication system,” Simon said. “If it were to be hacked, it would show up as gibberish.”

These unofficial numbers are what you see on the Secretary of State’s website on election night, as well as what media outlets use to update their tallies.

“A lot of people on election night have sore thumbs from pushing refresh,” Simon said.

An election volunteer feeding a ballot into a voting machine
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
An election volunteer feeding a ballot into a voting machine in St. Paul on Tuesday morning.

To make things official, a county canvassing board, made up of the county auditor, the court administrator of the district court, the mayor or city council president of the largest city in the county, and two county board members review the unofficial report, comparing it to the receipts from the precinct tabulators. The county canvassing board certifies the results for everything on the ballot in the county, then sends a certified paper copy of the results to the state canvassing board.

The state canvassing board, made up of the secretary of state, two members of the Minnesota Supreme Court, and two district court judges, all appointed by the secretary, meets the third Tuesday after the general election, to review the statewide report, made up of official county reports. The state canvassing board certifies the results of all statewide races (including for federal offices), constitutional amendments, and any legislative or judicial races for seats whose boundaries include more than one county.

A random sample of Minnesota precincts undergo an accuracy audit again after the election, to double-check the accuracy of vote tabulators. In the decade that this has been done, officials have never found a problem that required further audits, wrote Secretary of State spokesman Ryan Furlong in an email.

A sound system

Amid concern by some voters — particularly presidential candidate Donald Trump and some of his supporters — that the election could be rigged to favor one candidate or another, Simon said he wants to assure voters here that Minnesota’s system is about as sound as they come.

“I try to be as clear as I can possibly be — our election in Minnesota will not be rigged,” he told MinnPost.

While many states have traded in paper ballots for all electronic voting machines in recent decades, voting in Minnesota remains paper-based, and jurisdictions are required to keep physical ballots for 22 months after the election: in the event that any problems or questions arise, there’s always a paper trail to fall back on.

“We have a decentralized system — over 3,500 polling places, and we have a number of checks in place to make sure the counting is done by a number of people in a standardized way, with a lot of oversight,” he said. “I think this bears repeating this year more than any other.”

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