Morrison County Commissioners had several questions for Auditor/Treasurer Chelsey Robinson when she presented the county’s election processes to them, May 17.
Tuesday, she — along with Elections Supervisor Joyce Kahl — came back before the Board to give them some of the answers they had that day.
“This is obviously something that has garnered a lot of interest from a lot of people in the county,” said Board Chair Greg Blaine.
The first question Robinson addressed was whether open precincts that switched to mail-in ballots in 2020 due to COVID-19 were moving back to having open polling places this year. She said seven of the eight precincts were going back to in-person voting. Those include Buh Township, Cushing Township, Darling Township, Green Prairie Township, Pulaski Township, Ripley Township and the city of Upsala.
Pierz Township is the only one of those precincts that has opted to remain mail-in only.
In all, the county has 21 mail-in ballot only precincts and 28 open polling locations, including the Auditor/Treasurer’s Office. The latter accepts all absentee ballots and is the home for the mail ballot precincts.
“Morrison County’s only location for dropping off mail or absentee ballots is the Auditor/Treasurer’s Office,” Robinson said. “Morrison County doesn’t have any ballot dropboxes. We didn’t in the past and we don’t now.”
Blaine said, as the county has aimed to make things convenient for residents in the past, there is box outside of the Morrison County Government Center in the south parking lot where residents can drop tax payments, papers for social services and more. He asked if there had ever been issues with residents thinking it was also a dropbox for ballots.
Robinson said there could be “signage everywhere” informing residents that it’s not a ballot dropbox location. However, as it’s not certified, any voter who puts a ballot in that box does so at their own risk.
“In the back parking lot, it would be under camera surveillance,” she said. “If that were to happen, it would turn over to investigation.”
She added that if someone cannot make it into the Auditor/Treasurer’s Office but wants to hand in their mail-in or absentee ballot, they can call the office to make arrangements.
The Board also asked at the previous meeting if it could hold a review of the county’s election equipment. Robinson said her office will host an open house from 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. Monday, June 27, in the Board Room at the Government Center. Anyone is welcome to come test the new Omni-Ballot assisted voting devices.
“We’ll have a test deck with options for individuals to take the paper ballot and utilize the assisted voting device to mark the ballot, put the ballot into the printer, hit submit and then they can review their results to see how the machine works,” she said.
She stressed that the machines are hard-wired and are not connected to the internet, the cloud or anything else. The Omni-Ballot machines are tablets which are only used as assisted voting devices, not as vote tabulators.
The machines will be able to help residents that have trouble seeing, hearing and more. It can read the ballot to voters aloud, and there is even a button pad for Braille. It is required by law for every county in Minnesota to provide assisted voting devices.
“In utilization of this machine, the voter still has the opportunity to review his paper ballot before he submits that ballot,” Blaine said. “It’s not like I’m punching all of these decisions into a machine and then it’s gone and I don’t get to see it. We’re still using a paper ballot that’s marked and it’s reviewed by the voter before it’s tabulated.”
Robinson explained that, on election night, once the polls close, if there are 100 voters at that polling place, for example, it is the responsibility of the election judges to tie out the results. In other words, if there were 100 voters, they must ensure there are 100 ballots turned in.
Once that balances, two election officials who are members of opposite political parties bring the information to the Auditor/Treasurer’s Office. There, the votes are verified and double-checked to ensure they balance out.
In the Auditor/Treasurer’s Office, the information from the polling place is taken from a secure chip in the machine to a stand-alone computer, which is also not connected to the internet or the cloud. They are then entered into that computer.
Once the votes have been verified from all precincts, they are added up and placed onto another chip that is taken to another computer to be uploaded to the Secretary of State’s website.
“If there was anything manipulated from the time we go to the off-line, stand-alone computer to uploading on the Secretary of State’s website, because that is an online computer, we would then know right away and we could go back to where is the discrepancy and we could notify the Secretary of State,” Robinson said. “None of the results of the open polling places would be interfered with because it’s on a separate, stand-alone computer.”
Eventually, as part of the canvassing process, ballots are pulled from randomly selected precincts and hand-counted to make sure they match up with what was tabulated on the machine.
“How I view this, the stand-alone computer where those chips are tabulated, I look at that stand-alone computer as really being just a giant calculator of all races,” Blaine said.
The county also takes several measures to ensure voters who are deceased are removed from the voter rolls. Robinson said Kahl even goes as far as checking obituaries in the days leading up to the election to make sure there is nobody left on the roster who is no longer living.
They also take precautions to prevent people from voting twice. For example, if someone has voted absentee during the early voting period, that would be noted on the roster in that person’s precinct and election judges would be able to turn them away.
Voting more than once is a felony punishable by up to five years imprisonment and/or a $10,000 fine.
Kahl said there was one instance in which a voter was able to vote twice in 2020. In that case, a man’s wife filled out a mail-in ballot for her husband and sent it in without him knowing. His precinct was not open for in-person voting, so he went to a different precinct in an attempt to vote on election day.
Even though he should not have been able to vote in that precinct, Kahl said election judges made a mistake and let him cast a ballot.
She quickly noticed the mistake and turned the issue over the County Attorney’s Office.
“They investigated and it came out what happened,” Kahl said. “The wife was charged for that.”
“My point is, that proves that you guys do a great job in the county of taking these checks and balances,” said Commissioner Randy Winscher.
Robinson said the people in her office take election laws seriously. Each person who votes signs an oath attesting that they are able and eligible to vote, and that they’re not voting more than once.
“There is a process in law that if anybody were to try to vote twice, you will get caught, you will get charged and that will be on your record,” she said.
Robinson also reviewed a meeting several county officials had, May 19, with residents Jeremy Pekula and Erik van Mechelen, who requested a chance to discuss election topics. Along with Robinson and Kahl, County Administrator Matt LeBlanc, Blaine and Board Vice Chair Jeffrey Jelinski attended that meeting.
She said Pekula and van Mechelen shared videos from different states, other than Minnesota, on election topics, along with data from a New York Times article and a printout from an author with the Gateway Pundit. They followed that with a proposal to secure elections in the county with 10 changes to procedure, along with a resolution to move forward with hand-counting.
Robinson and Blaine noted that the two residents stated they were not concerned about election integrity among Morrison County’s election officials. Robinson said it’s also important to note that every state has different laws regarding elections.
To get information on Minnesota’s election laws and procedures, she said the easiest way is to visit the Secretary of State’s website.
The proposals Pekula and van Mechelen brought forward involved changing election law procedures.
“They cannot be changed or passed through the county government level,” Robinson said. “They would have to go through the House and state. It is laws that they were proposing to change, and there’s a process for that.”
In terms of the resolution to move to hand-counting, she said she shared with them the history of election equipment in Morrison County, which is all tested and certified prior to an election.
“Morrison County’s post-election review has always passed the audit testing,” she said. “I also shared an example of how the election equipment improves voter accuracy during a primary election.”
Commissioner Mike LeMieur said he has read that tabulating votes on a machine is more reliable than hand-counting ballots. Kahl said, though she has not seen that information, it would not surprise her. The hand-counting process, she said, is tedious and involves election judges who are at the end of a long day. She said it stands to reason mistakes could be made.
“I just want to highlight Joyce, because she is the wealth of knowledge in our office when it comes to elections,” Robinson said. “I don’t know what I’d do without her.”