Are Minnesota Polling Places Ready?

Out-state there's good news; in the metro, signs of trouble

Meanwhile, Hennepin and other Minnesota counties also have to contend with facilitating absentee ballots, which O'Connor estimates are also up about 50 percent compared to four years ago (see page 24). Both he and Dorothy McClung at Ramsey County said they were anticipating getting all the preregistration cards to Kiffmeyer's office by last Sunday, just two days before the October 26 date when the secretary's office normally returns the verified voter rosters. That obviously isn't going to happen in Minnesota's two largest counties this year.

The good news is that many of the smaller counties are on schedule and seem ready to go. Some, such as Aitkin County, say they have never experienced problems with the new registration system. But even in Carlton County, where auditor Paul Gassert came down and testified at a legislative committee hearing last month about the maddening delays his employees were encountering, there is a sense of optimism and relief. "After that hearing, I think the secretary's office got the message and fixed some things," Gassert says.

Of course the flood of new registrations is more akin to a manageable stream in these counties, which finished inputting their pre-October 12 registration cards many days ago.

Even in a midsized area such as Anoka County, Elections Supervisor Gary Poser reports that his employees still get bumped out of the computerized system on a daily basis. And in Blue Earth County, Director of Taxpayer Services Patty O'Connor (no relation to Hennepin County's Pat O'Connor) says that the system remains a headache. "Anybody whose registration card we received after October 12, we send a card out telling them they have to go to their precinct and register," says O'Connor. "But the system has been dropping the address of the precinct on the card. This is typical: They fix one thing and another screws up. The system wasn't ready. That's not surprising. We are going to get a new tax program here in the county and every vendor has told us that it usually takes from 12 to 18 months to do conversions and go live with it. The secretary of state's office rolled out this system at the end of June--that's just four months."

Nearly everyone we interviewed emphasized that getting bumped or flagged by the new system doesn't preclude any eligible Minnesotan from voting because of the state statute allowing for same-day registration. But as a practical matter, it does discourage people from participating. All indications point to a massive turnout at the polls, and the seemingly interminable wait in line will become particularly aggravating--and, for those with necessary obligations and commitments, untenable--if one finds he or she is bumped and has to reregister.

The closeness of the presidential race, the heightened impact it will exert on the future course of our country, the brouhaha over Florida in 2000, and the steady escalation of partisan rancor all augur for a particularly heated and chaotic day at the polls. (And as if that weren't enough, we also have Kiffmeyer's infamous "profile of a terrorist" handout and warnings from the federal Department of Homeland Security about schools--the site of many polling places--being vulnerable to terrorists.) "We have so many people interested in the process from all political angles, who are talking about being at or near polling places. I fervently hope these people will give election judges and staff a chance to conduct the election the way it is always done in Minnesota," Botzek says.

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