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What the average voter needs to know about countywide elections

Hubbard County Auditor Kay Rave wants to reassure voters that elections in Minnesota are safe and secure.

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It’s 40 days until the Nov. 8 general election.

Early or absentee voting began Sept. 23.

Hubbard County Auditor Kay Rave and her office are steeped in preparation, like testing and certifying equipment to the Minnesota Secretary of State (SOS).

They’ll be mailing ballots residing in mail-ballot precincts within the next few days.

“So far, we have provided absentee ballots to over 300 voters, of which 40 have already voted in-person,” she said.

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Rave also wants to reassure voters that elections in Minnesota are safe and secure.

“I think Minnesotans should have a lot of confidence in our electoral process, I really do.”

A need for voter education

When upset or alarmed voters have visited her office, Rave said, “I think that they feel that their rights have, in some way, been violated. They haven’t been communicated with or they don’t know the process. It’s a matter of voter education. Once they’ve been educated as to what that specific issue is, they seem to have a much better understanding.”

Misinformation is being spread online that's either inaccurate, or doesn't pertain to elections in Minnesota or Hubbard County.

Rave recounted one person sharing a rumor that a Las Vegas dog voted in the 2020 election.

“Just because he heard about it 1,500 miles away doesn’t mean it happened in Minnesota. It just tells me that he has no idea what our process is. If they did know, they probably wouldn’t be saying that,” she said.

Open your mail

Most questions that the Hubbard County Auditor’s office receives are related to mail balloting. For example, the voter didn’t realize their township switched to mail balloting during the 2020 election.

Rave points out that township meetings are advertised and public. Voters have a civic responsibility, she said, to pay attention to local government meetings, whether it’s about balloting, budgets or the tax levy.

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The county auditor’s office sends correspondence as well, such as a ballot because the resident is registered to vote and lives in a mail-in district or a notice about delinquent taxes.

Rave said a lot of residents don’t open their mail.

“In 2020, we had husbands and wives calling us, madder than heck. ‘How come I have four ballots here? What are you doing?’ Well, did two of those say primary election? ‘Oh, yeah.’ That tells us those ballots remained unopened since July or August, and now they’re finally opening them.”

One person, one ballot

“Our ballots are under lock and key,” Rave pointed out.

Is it possible to duplicate ballots and submit them?

No, Rave said, because it requires special paper and every ballot has a barcode.

“We also track how many ballots are issued.”

Once an absentee application has been received, the county prints labels, assembles the packet and mails the ballot. All labels are barcoded.

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Every absentee ballot has a matching label that is placed on the absentee’s application.

If, for example, a voter says they spilled coffee on their ballot, Rave said the county will spoil that ballot and issue a new replacement with a new barcode.

When the voter completes, signs and returns the ballot, the county compares the signature envelope with identification information on the absentee application. Two election judges from separate parties must either accept or reject it.

“That little, white signature envelope is just like signing the roster when you go in person to vote,” Rave said. “Whether it’s an electronic or paper roster, that signature is saying, ‘I’m signing for this ballot. I’m eligible and qualified to vote.’”

Rave said, this year, they’ve had to spoil ballots and reissue them because the voter did not supply a witness signature. The instructions are clear that a witness signature is required.

Once accepted, the envelope is scanned into the statewide voter registration system, where the voter can verify that the county received the ballot.

“There is so much documentation, every step of the way,” Rave said.

The process is the same for a mail-in ballot, except there is no application form because they are only sent to a registered voter living in a mail-in precinct.

All signed envelopes are stored in a locked room. Ballots are not removed from the secrecy envelopes or processed until the approved election period, which in Minnesota, is seven days prior to Election Day.

The count

Before opening ballots, the county checks that the number of received absentee or mail-in ballots matches the number of ballots mailed per precinct.

Handling one precinct at a time, each signature envelope is opened and each secrecy envelope, which contains the ballot, is removed and put into a pile with other secrecy envelopes for that specific precinct.

Next, all secrecy envelopes are opened and ballots removed.

At that point, if the ballot has been ruined, under-voted or over-voted, the county cannot contact the voter to correct the mistakes. “We would never know who it was anyway,” Rave said.

She said the county has received ballots scrawled with political beliefs, or no votes at all, for instance.

Two election judges from separate parties review each ballot and initial it.

“If they used the wrong paper and it was a fraud, we’d be able to tell,” Rave said, adding that, if ballots are missing QR codes, that would be obvious as well.

If that were to happen, her first call would be to the Hubbard County Attorney, the Hubbard County Sheriff and the legal advisor for the SOS, she continued.

“We do prosecute,” Rave said. In 2020, they caught one wife who attempted to vote for her deceased husband.

Accepted absentee and mailed ballots are then scanned into the DS450 Central Count.

“We can process up to 75 ballots a minute through that machine, which was really helpful in 2020. I don’t think we would’ve survived without it,” Rave said.“It separates overvotes, undervotes, and sorts them into a pile for review. Ballots are duplicated when voter intent is clear. For example, a vote is crossed out and another office is voted for.”

An example of an undervote is when a voter doesn’t pick a judicial candidate, and is not a reason to duplicate a ballot.

Sometimes people use big, indelible markers and it bleeds through the ballot, making it look like an overvote, Rave said.

Again, two election judges from different political parties review such ballots and re-feed them into the DS450 to be counted.

No one knows the results of the election until after voting closes at 8 p.m. on Election Day, Rave noted. “And we only disclose to the SOS. We’re too small and too busy to have people running statistics for us.”

Voting machine safeguards

In Minnesota, those safeguards include testing optical scan machines both before a primary election and the general election.

“Every piece of equipment is tested and certified before it goes out the door,” Rave said. That includes two accuracy tests, which are open to the public.

In-person voting is done with a DS200 ballot counter.

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The county's ballot counting machines, like this DS200, were purchased with state grant dollars. They are tested before the primary and general elections. At no time is it connected to the internet.
Shannon Geisen / Enterprise

Neither the DS450 or DS200 are ever connected to the internet, so they're not vulnerable to hacking.

“They all have a thumb drive,” Rave explained.

When the polls close, a summary statement is printed at each precinct. It shows how many people were registered at 7 a.m., registered on Election Day, voted. It also reports how many ballots were received.

The data from the thumb drives is put into a stand-alone, non-internet-connected computer at the courthouse. Election software converts the statistics into a form that is then uploaded to the SOS.

After the results have been canvassed, those are the official results. “They are signed by everyone on the canvass board, stamped, sealed and overnighted to the SOS,” Rave said.

“The state has such good internal controls. When we have a question or need guidance, they’re very good at clarifying the correct process.”

With the use of paper ballots, there's a record that can be checked.

There’s also a requirement in every Minnesota county to audit the votes in randomly chosen precincts after the election.

Election judges

Rave explained that she hired four part-time, temporary county election judges. Candidates had to fill out an application stating their political affiliation. They were interviewed like any other county employee. Election judges are trained. They assist with testing voting equipment and other election duties.

Township and city election judges have often served for many years and know locals well, Rave added. At in-person voting, the judges ensure there is one signed ballot per voter.

No drop box

Earlier this year, the Hubbard County Board refused a state grant to implement security measures on the county’s two drop boxes. Without 24-hour video surveillance during elections, the drop boxes cannot be used for ballots. Any ballots placed there will be spoiled – and uncounted, depending on the timing. If there is enough time before the election, the county can send a replacement ballot.

“If it’s the day before the election and we can’t contact that person, they’re out of luck,” Rave said.

Fewer mail-in ballot districts this election

In 2020, there were 15,063 registered voters in Hubbard County, and 17 precincts chose mail-in only ballots.

The difficulty in getting election judges during the pandemic was one of the reasons precincts switched to mail ballots, Rave said at the time. Four townships and the City of Nevis stated they opted for mail balloting due to COVID-19.

Overall voter turnout was stellar in Hubbard County – 13,018 voted, or 86% of those registered. Of the 5,647 people registered in mail-ballot precincts, 5,005 or 90% voted. In-person precincts saw 8,013 of the 9,416 voters, or 86%.

Rave noted that “very few” ballots were received a week after the 2020 Election Day. They would not have made a statistical difference in the race results, she said.

In 2022, these 10 precincts are mail-in only: Akeley, Clay, Hendrickson, Lake Alice, Schoolcraft, Steamboat River (P1 and P2), Thorpe, White Oak and Laporte townships.

There are currently 14,780 registered voters, as of Sept. 26.

Rave invites voters with questions to call her office at 218-732-3196 or visit the SOS website at https://www.sos.state.mn.us/elections-voting .

Additional resources

The National Association of State Election Directors is the professional organization for the civil servants responsible for administering elections in every U.S. state and territory and the District of Columbia. It has a webpage where voters can find trustworthy links to information in their state , directly from the officials who are in charge of carrying out the election.

States and territories have different deadlines for registering to vote, so check your registration now .

The nonpartisan League of Women Voters put together a resource hub at vote411.org where you can verify that you’re registered to vote and find out what’s on your ballot.

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Shannon Geisen is editor of the Park Rapids Enterprise.
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