“Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty”: Minnesota Explores Voting Technology Funding

Undated courtesy photo, circa Oct. 2014, of Steve Simon, candidate for Minnesota Secretary of State in the Nov. 2014 election. Photo courtesy of the candidate.

[Image courtesy of Steve Simon via twincities.com]

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon spent a good portion of his first year on the job traveling to all 87 counties and touching base on what issues are most important to them. Based on those travels, you can add the North Star State to the list of states seeking to upgrade or replace aging voting technology. The Pioneer Press has more via Twincities.com:

Minnesota’s aging voting machines are wearing out and will soon need to be replaced.

That’s the message Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said he heard “loud and clear” from local officials during his recently completed tour of all 87 Minnesota counties.

Most cities, counties and townships use electronic election equipment that is at least 10 years old and getting close to its “10- to 15-year useful lifespan — and 15 is sort of a stretch,” Simon said in a recent interview.

There’s a growing risk the voting machines will fail or crash, resulting in lost votes or long lines at polling places.

“I’m hearing loudly and clearly from election administrators and others concerned about elections that this is an issue we need to address sooner rather than later and not wait until it becomes a crisis — and they need help,” Simon said.

The challenge, as always, is how to pay the bill:

Voting equipment is expensive. Election specialists from the secretary of state’s office and the Minnesota Management and Budget agency estimate it will cost about $28 million to replace the two main pieces of equipment needed at polling places: the machines that voters insert their ballots in to be counted and “assisted voting” equipment for people with disabilities, which is required by federal law.

Hennepin [Minneapolis] and Anoka [Minneapolis suburb] counties have purchased new machines in the past year and Ramsey County [St. Paul] is preparing to replace its old equipment, but smaller counties, particularly those in rural Minnesota, do not have the money to upgrade their voting systems, Simon said …

In 2002, Congress provided the money to purchase new electronic machines in response to the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida, where hanging chads, butterfly ballots and disenfranchised voters delayed the outcome for 36 days.

But don’t look to Washington for funding this time.

“Congress has been crystal clear that was a one-time deal,” Simon said.

Simon – who came to the Secretary’s office after years as a legislator (and elections committee chair) – is putting together a plan to address the problem:

Earlier this year, Simon organized a working group made up of city, county and township officials and a bipartisan set of state lawmakers to develop funding ideas to recommend to the 2016 Legislature.

He doesn’t expect them to act next year, since it isn’t a budget-making year, but he wants to put the issue on lawmakers’ radar screens.

“We are not at an absolute crisis point yet, and for 2016 we’re not going to get a ton of new equipment,” he said. “But as we get into 2018 and certainly by 2020, it’s going to start to be a problem.

“I believe the old saying that you have to dig your well before you’re thirsty.”

The group hasn’t settled on recommendations yet, but they have talked about state-local matching grants. Simon noted that Ohio recently purchased electronic poll books for all its polling places with the state picking up 85 percent of the cost and local governments paying 15 percent.

Minnesota is just the latest state to confront the “impending crisis” identified by the Presidential Commission of Election Administration. Given the difficulties other state election officials have had in convincing legislatures of the need to invest in new voting technology, Minnesota is right to start now and not wait for the last minute to fund an upgrade. Simon’s legislative background can only be a benefit in that process. Here’s hoping the state can address its problem – and perhaps generate ideas for how other states might do the same.

Stay tuned.

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