News Flash

Wright County News

Posted on: April 20, 2020

Election Equipment Used in Presidential Nomination Primary Was A Big Success

Given the ongoing COVID-19 situation, it seems like March 3 was an eternity ago. But, that was the date of Minnesota’s Presidential Nomination Primary (PNP). As Wright County voters came out to the polls to cast their ballots, behind the scenes, the Wright County Auditor/Treasurer’s Elections Division was breaking out a new voting system.

With the Republicans not having a race – President Donald Trump was the only name on the ballot – Wright County Auditor/Treasurer Bob Hiivala knew there would likely be a very low turnout by election standards. It was small enough that the poll pads used to confirm voter rosters weren’t necessary. It was also a chance to give a test run to new voting tabulators.

In 2019, Wright County got a grant from the State of Minnesota to upgrade the county’s vote tabulators. They purchased DS200 tabulators for precincts and a DS450 as a central tabulator for the election headquarters the Wright County Government Center. The DS450 is used to run absentee ballots or recount ballots for accuracy and can do so at a rate of 70 a minute – a far cry from the antiquated AutoMARK system the county had used for year.

“We were still stuck with the assisted voting technology – the AutoMARK,” Hiivala said. “They’re aging, so we were starting to have issues with them. The DS200 are the new tabulators. The sense from our election officials was that they wanted the new machine.”

With the grant funding, the county was able to make the purchase and get an upgraded product. As Hiivala viewed it, there was no better opportunity to give a trial run for the new equipment than the light participation expected in the Presidential Nomination Primary. 

“The PNP was the perfect time to introduce the new tabulator to all the precincts,” Hiivala said. “There were far fewer people voting in that election than we will be seeing in the primary election in August and the general election in November. We were able to roll it out and give it a run without the pressure of having a flood of voters casting ballots.”

Wright County is still using paper ballots when voters come to the polls and select their candidates of choice. They are tabulated by the DS200 via media sticks. The ballot count is read into a secure laptop from a secure media stick and those votes go through a secure website to get the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office. They still have the paper ballots to fall back on if needed, but, the technological advantage of the new tabulators has improved the process of accurately counting ballots significantly, as well as assuring the sanctity of the ballots.

“The media sticks are secure and our machine can only read a designated stick,” Hiivala said. “We have the summary reports from the precincts and we validate that those are the same numbers we have on the sticks. We have the paper ballots behind those summary statements to make sure the numbers match up.”

As impressed as the precinct workers were with the DS200’s performance, Hiivala was equally impressed with the precision of the DS450.

It was a dramatic change from how business was conducted and the tabulator more than lived up to what Hiivala was anticipating.

“We were very impressed with the accuracy of how that machine worked,” Hiivala said. “Prior to having the DS450, election officials had to make the numbers match up between the number of ballots they were issued, the number of votes cast and the number of unused ballots remaining. Prior to this election, election judges were told that they don’t bring their results in until the numbers match. It’s not that hard to be one or two off. Those things happen sometimes. With the new machine, they can bring those ballots in if they can’t get a matching count and we can run them through the central tabulator and quickly figure out where the problem is. We put the DS450 through its paces and it exceeded my expectation of how easy it was to run.”

With the August primary coming and what many believe will be a November general election that will include a record number of voters coming to the polls, putting the new tabulators a trial run under almost clinical election conditions was an opportunity Hiivala was happy to have – this year was the first time in 28 years that Minnesota conducted a PNP – to get a test of the new equipment was critical.

He had some concerns heading in, but Hiivala ended the process with a newfound respect for the tabulators, which he needed given the higher voter turnout that is expected in November.

“I was very happy how the voting equipment performed,” Hiivala said. “Whenever you’re running equipment for the first time, there is always a little anxiety that something won’t go as expected. But, I thought it went very well and will be a benefit for us moving forward, because we anticipate high turnout for the elections later this year.”

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