electionline Weekly - December 14, 2006

I. In Focus This Week

Minnesota performs first post-election review
State-mandated audit a success, officials and advocates say

By Sean Greene

Minnesota's first-ever post-election review - a manual count of votes from randomly-selected precincts in the state - drew raves from two sides that do not always see eye-to-eye, election officials and advocacy groups.

"I believe that Minnesota has done a most remarkable job at making every vote count and count correctly," said Janet Straub, a Minnesota resident and observer of the post-election review.

Incoming Secretary of State Mark Ritchie (DFL) said he was also impressed.

"I am excited to hear the very positive results from our first reviews. We can all feel a great deal of confidence in our election results - and only hope that other states can catch up to our system before the 2008 elections," he said in a press release from Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota.

The law mandating this new procedure was spearheaded by State Representative Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson.

"We have a really good system in place in Minnesota. We have a 100 percent paper-ballot system. But even with these devices the only way to be confident in their security and reliability is to check them out," Hilty stated.

Depending on the number of registered voters in a county, two to four precincts per jurisdiction must be randomly selected for auditing. Hilty said he wants to fine-tune the law during the next legislative session by requiring larger-population counties to audit more precincts.

Congressional, presidential and gubernatorial races are examined. Local election officials and election judges perform the check, hand-counting the paper ballots and comparing them with the optical-scan tabulation results.

The comparison is required to be accurate to within one-half of 1percent and if it is not, more precincts are reviewed.

In many counties, precincts were selected less than a week after Election Day, with most counties performing reviews within days of the precincts' selection, generally at county courthouses. (For more details on which precincts were reviewed and when, click here.)

The selection of the precincts was open to the public, as was the review. Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota and the League of Women Voters Minnesota teamed up to organize observers in 70 of the state's 87 counties. (The state has over 4,100 precincts of which close to 200 were reviewed.)

"Based on reports from our observers in 70 counties, we are impressed by the accuracy of the machines that were reviewed and the professionalism of the county election officials," said Mark Halvorson, director of Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota in the group's press release.

Some county election officials, however, were initially skeptical of the new requirement, including Kevin Corbid, director of elections in Washington County.

"When the post-election audit was passed in Minnesota, I frankly was not a big proponent. Any local election official understands the enormous amount of work that is done by county auditors, county election staff, city and township staff and election judges. The idea of adding more duties was not appealing," Corbid stated.

He added if testing of the equipment before an election is done correctly, it goes a long way to ensuring a secure and reliable vote.

The county has more than 150,000 registered voters and 87 precincts and it took just under five hours to complete the review of four precincts. Of the 12 races reviewed, seven had exact matches; four races saw one vote added each to a candidate and one race saw two votes added to a candidate.

Corbid said the discrepancies were not the result of machine error but rather how the ballots had been marked. In some cases ballots either had check marks or an X marked outside the oval, or voters had circled the candidate's name, which could not be picked up by the optical-scan machine but was found during the manual count.

Ultimately, despite his initial concerns, he was satisfied with the review.

"I was surprised at how quickly the audit went. I was not surprised by the quality performance of the equipment and our election judges.if this is what is needed to provide some assurance to those who do not have as much confidence in the system then I have no problem continuing to do the audits," he stated.

Like Washington County, nearby Anoka County, with more than 180,000 registered voters and 123 precincts, also reviewed four precincts. The process was observed by 20 people and took approximately three hours to conclude.

Rachel Smith, Anoka County elections supervisor, deemed the day a success.

"I was very happy with the outcome. It was smooth and efficient," she said. "Any way we can be pro-active and people know their vote is being counted is a good thing."

Nationally, 15 states mandate post-election manual audits of voting systems, according to VerifiedVoting.org.