[Image of Minnetonka City Hall courtesy of wikimedia]
Wendy Underhill and the team at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) have been doing terrific work in bringing election officials and legislators together to discuss the role election legislation can play in clarifying (and clouding) election policy. As part of that work, NCSL has been convening state-specific meetings to learn more about the present and future of elections in the host state.
In May, the tour came to Minnesota – and as part of the day, legislators spent the morning in the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka to learn more about what elections look like at the local level. Recently, NCSL published a short Q&A with Minnetonka City Clerk David Maeda that examines some of the big issues currently facing election officials in the North Star State. It’s an interesting read:
Q: What is the biggest challenge Minnetonka faces in administering an election?
A: Absentee voting. Our absentee voting period is 45 days prior to every election. People can vote an absentee ballot through the mail or they can come in to City Hall during the 45 days and vote in person. Particularly in presidential elections, our City Hall becomes basically a polling place for about the two weeks before the election we have lines of people waiting to vote.
Q: And that is because Minnesota does not have traditional early in-person voting?
A: That’s correct, and I think a lot of voters don’t really understand the difference. They think we are running a polling place here but it is still absentee voting, which is a little more complicated. People have to apply for the ballot and once they vote that ballot, it doesn’t automatically get tabulated. It gets either accepted or rejected after they leave the building.
Q: That must yield a lot of behind-the-scenes work?
A: Yes. There is a lot of work we are doing behind-the-scenes for every ballot. Absentee voting has increased in every even year that I have been here (seven years). People are taking advantage of it; in fact our state just went to no-excuse absentee voting. Our first election using no-excuse absentee ballots will be in August… The biggest challenge is that we don’t know what that increase (in absentee voters) will be…We have no data for how this will look but we are anticipating the kind of turnout we saw during the last presidential election and we are going to staff up that way.
Q: What has been your take on part-time poll workers or allowing people working at polling places to split up their shifts?
A: That was started by my predecessor here and it’s been very successful. The ability (for Election Day workers to) work in shifts appeals to a lot of our elections judges and it’s really helped us retain a good group of people to work every election.
Q: Recently, NCSL visited your office for a robust discussion about voting technology. Why has this issue been important for your office?
A: We were the first city in the state to use electronic poll books…We started using them in 2009 and we have basically been using electronic poll books on a very limited basis for Election Day registration ever since. To me it’s a great example that this technology is not just a gadget. It really helps our elections judges and walks them through our most complicated process that they have to deal with on Election Day. It makes their job easier and it makes the voting experience better because it speeds up our process. To me, the only downside of (electronic poll books) is the cost.
Q: What can legislators do to help the elections process?
A: The one thing that really struck me from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s report was the revelation that one size does not fit all in most legislation. It’s very difficult for a law to be written that is specific enough to set a standard for all the election administrators in the state to follow while not tying our hands so that the law does not work on the local level. That’s a very difficult line to define. The example that comes to mind for Minnesota is the 2008 statewide recount for the U.S. Senate race. The recount showed us a couple of things: that our equipment is incredibly accurate. When we hand-recounted the ballots, it was like 99 percent accurate on how the tabulation occurred. The only discrepancies were when a voter didn’t mark the ballot the way they were instructed to mark the ballot. From that experience, the issue came down to how we accepted and rejected absentee ballots. So the legislature in the next session standardized the way we are all processing absentee ballots, which helped the overall process but, again, it took away a lot of discretion at the local level that was useful in past elections.
Q: What will likely be some interesting issues affecting Minnesota?
A: I think it will be interesting to see where the discussion goes for all-mail elections. I think we are all keeping an eye on the other states: Washington, Oregon and Colorado. I think there is a group of people who feel that is the way Minnesota is going to go and that it’s just a matter of when.
NCSL is planning similar meetings in other states this fall – and I look forward to hearing more from election officials in those states as well! Thanks to Wendy and Katy Owens Hubler for their work on this very interesting and important project!