Is Minnesota Slowing Down on E-Pollbooks? Some Legislators, Election Officials Hope Not

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[Image courtesy of charitiesnfplaw]

A little more than a year after Minnesota voters bucked what was then a popular national trend by voting down photo ID, the state now appears to be considering whether to lag behind another trend – the adoption of e-pollbooks. MinnPost’s James Nord has more:

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.

“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.”

Interestingly enough, it appears that the current ambivalence about e-pollbooks is somewhat related to the ID fight:

“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,’ ” [Secretary of State Mark] 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.

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.

Now, 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.

That’s not to say that there isn’t significant support for moving forward; some legislators want to continue the push, saying that the two issues are completely separate, and at least one influential local election official says voters will benefit too:

“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” …

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.

[Former Secretary of State and State Sen.] 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.

“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.

For now, the hesitation seems to be a particularly Minnesotan phenomenon as both sides continue to heal from the at-times vicious fight over ID – which has led Gov. Mark Dayton to say he won’t sign any election bills that don’t enjoy significant bipartisan support. Still, given the likely benefits of e-pollbooks to election officials and voters alike, here’s hoping that legislators and others are able to come together on the idea.

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