Are Minnesota Polling Places Ready?

Hennepin County Auditor Pat O'Connor: "Hell, yes, we've had problems"
Craig Lassig

With less than six days to go before the polls open, it is difficult to overstate the potential melodrama about to be enacted by Minnesota voters. In the presidential race, we are considered a toss-up state whose electoral votes could make the difference in a toss-up nation. The opinion polls are within the margin of error, and are generally regarded to be unreliable in any case.

In part, that is because of the unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort being waged by both major parties. Minnesota is destined to set state records for the number of newly registered voters this election. But this laudatory exercise in participatory democracy has been shrouded by heated partisanship and credible conspiracy theories.

By far the most controversial figure during this election season has been Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer. Madam Secretary's various shenanigans have been amply chronicled in these pages and other media outlets over the past few weeks. But perhaps her most significant gambit was her decision to make Minnesota one of just nine states that has opted not to seek a waiver on the new federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA). In plain terms, this has meant that county election officials have had to deal with the last-minute implementation of a new, HAVA-compliant voter registration system. The system has been riddled with glitches, creating enormous delays and fueling a great deal of frustration and added cost as counties have tried to keep pace with the torrent of new registrations and transfer and update their old voter rolls.

With Election Day now nearly at hand, City Pages interviewed more than 15 county auditors and administrators from around the state to determine whether their frantic efforts have been enough to ensure a relatively smooth operation at the polls on November 2. Unfortunately, the answer to that question, especially in the more populous urban counties, remains as uncertain as the outcome of Bush versus Kerry.

By state law, the deadline for Minnesotans to preregister to vote was October 12. Under normal circumstances, the counties would input all of the cards received by then into the registration system and send them to the secretary of state's office. In turn, Kiffmeyer's employees would check the names and driver's license numbers against what they have on file at the Department of Motor Vehicles and return a verified roster of registered voters to the counties by October 26. Anyone whose name or number did not match what was on the registration card could be bumped from the list or flagged as requiring further identification or clarification.

But the huge volume of new registered voters plus the delays caused by dealing with a new system is retarding the process. Some of the larger counties may not receive appropriate updated and verified lists on time. Consequently, it will be difficult to get an accurate list and to determine why--or if--voters who have indeed registered got bumped or flagged. During the September primary, which involved far fewer voters, there were relatively numerous complaints (compared to past primaries) from voters who felt they were unfairly or erroneously excluded from the rolls.

"I don't think we know--it is an unanswered question right now as to whether people will be bumped, so it certainly is a concern," says Luci Botzek, who as the administrator/legislative counsel for the Association of Counties represents all the county election workers. "There certainly isn't a complete confidence that everybody who is registered will show up on the roster. What we are telling people is be prepared to reregister and be prepared for long lines."

Not surprisingly, the potential for problems is most acute in counties with the greatest number of registered voters. And Hennepin County, long regarded as a DFL stronghold despite the presence of many suburbs within its borders, is more than twice as large as any other county in the state.

"Hell, yes, we've had problems," says Hennepin County Auditor Pat O'Connor. For the last presidential election four years ago, 43,000 new voters registered in Hennepin County between June and the end of August. This year there were 65,000 new registrants during the same period--a 50 percent jump. And O'Connor estimates that another 7,500 registrations were submitted to the county each week from the end of August until the October 12 deadline, another huge increase over 2000.

Inputting all these names and numbers into Kiffmeyer's immature system has been something of a horror show. "Multiple screens are required to enter a single registration--as many as five screens," O'Connor says. "Ideally you want the cursor to be able to jump from field to field rather than having to go through all those screens. The old system was a little easier, but still inadequate. We weren't opposed to replacing it, but right before a huge election is not the time to test out something new."

Especially when the secretary's office is shutting down access to the system on an almost daily basis for maintenance and repairs. "They have gotten pretty good about giving us some forewarning about when they are idling the system," O'Connor allows. "They have been helpful about trying to do it around the supper hour, and also sometimes very late at night." But in recent weeks, any shutdown disrupts the work at Hennepin County, which has supplemented its normal six-person staff with as many as two 20-person crews working nearly around the clock. "If they shut down the system for only 20 or 30 minutes, I still have to pay those people. If it's for a few hours, I have to send them home," O'Connor says.

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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