— How secure are elections in Minnesota? Kandiyohi County Auditor-Treasurer Mark Thompson and Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon agree that Minnesota elections are very safe and secure.
Simon was in Willmar on Monday for a roundtable discussion with local business leaders and elected officials. Thompson addressed the issue during a Tuesday evening meeting of the Willmar Human Rights Commission.
"In Minnesota, we really do have a clean and honest system," Simon said. "Let me give you a number to back that up so you don't just think it's me blowing smoke.
"The number of actual, provable instances of wrongdoing or misconduct of any voting-related territory (in the last election) — registration, voting, anything — it's only 17. ... Now, that's 17 too many. I and you want it to be zero ... But, we have to put it into a little bit of perspective. We had 3.3 million voters last time; 17 is a really, really microscopic number for 3.3 million voters."
"All 50 states have different election laws," Thompson said. "If you hear something in the news about some other state, and think, 'Boy, I wonder if that's happening here?' Honestly, I think our election system is pretty tight."
Both Simon and Thompson explained how the election system works in Minnesota to their respective audiences.
Simon noted that Election Day is not really the day Minnesotans vote anymore, it is the final day to vote.
"The emphasis isn't any longer exclusively Election Day, it's actually an election season," he commented.
He noted that in 2020, 58% of voters used absentee ballots, up from 24% in 2018.
"That means that only 42% of Minnesotans voted the traditional way," he added. "With increases come more questions. It should, that's the rational thing."
People are concerned that someone could steal any of the thousands of blank ballots that are mailed to absentee voters and fill them out.
Simon explained that Minnesota has multiple layers of security for that reason. When people apply for a mail-in ballot, they have to present some type of identifying information of their choice, whether it be the last four digits of their Social Security number or their driver's license number.
When the mail-in ballot is returned, it must have that exact same information on it in order to be counted.
"The mailbox thief would have to know not only what the identifying information is, but which particular form you used," Simon said. "Then, he would have to forge your signature, and then he would have to forge your witness's signature. If any of those three things are not present, that ballot will be destroyed and never counted."
Another level of security is that the Secretary of State's Office is notified whenever an absentee ballot is requested and also when the ballot is returned, Thompson said.
"They know how many ballots we issued, and they know how many ballots were received," he noted.
Absentee ballots can begin being run through the voting machines a week before Election Day, but the machine cannot be closed out and the ballots counted until after 8 p.m. on Election Day, Thompson told his audience.
He also stated that election machines are very safe and accurate. Kandiyohi County uses Election Systems & Software machines. All election machines in the state must be approved by the Secretary of State's Office.
"Those machines are very accurate," Thompson said. "More so, and I will go out on a limb saying this, some people talk about hand counting. Oof. Can you imagine how many hours that would involve? Plus, now you have human error."
He explained that during hand counting, each race has to be counted separately.
For instance, if a ballot contains a race for mayor and a race for county commissioner, the mayor would get counted, then the ballots would be counted again for county commissioner.
"If there's 12 races on the ballot, you'd be counting those ballots 12 times," Thompson said.
There is a lot of testing of the voting machines that takes place before the election to make sure they are working properly and accurately, including a public accuracy test during which the public can observe the testing of the machines, he said. The Kandiyohi County public accuracy test took place Thursday.
One year, at least 10,000 ballots were run through the three voting machines during the testing period, Thompson said.
Thompson told the story of how absentee ballots were run through the machine one year and the count was more than what should have been received.
"So we knew we had a problem. The only way to fix it was to run all of those ballots back through," Thompson said.
The error was found at 10 p.m. and there were about 3,000 ballots that had to be run through the machine again. The recount did not end until 6 a.m., he said, noting the fastest he could run ballots through was about 500 per hour.
At the end of the night on Election Day, election judges verify the number of votes, which has to match the number of votes counted on the machine. The number of votes also has to match the number of signatures on the voting roster.
Election judges also have to make sure the number of ballots sent to the precinct in the morning balances out at the end of the night by adding together the unused ballots, spoiled ballots and ballots cast.
"If for some reason it doesn't balance out, we have to have a legitimate reason," said Michelle Hanson, county elections coordinator.
One legitimate reason would be that there was an incorrect number of ballots in the prepackaged bundles, which are typically bundled in packages of 100. Election judges are told to hand count each package when it is opened to verify it has the correct number of ballots, sometimes there are one too many or one too few.
When this happens, it must be recorded on the balance sheet to verify what happened.
A precinct summary worksheet is completed at the end of the night and includes the ballot balance information and information regarding the number of election judges that worked and the number of voting stations at the precinct. The sheet must be signed by three of the election judges working the precinct.
Election judges place all voted ballots in a special sealed envelope that is signed by three judges across the seal, print the results tape from the voting machine, pack up all the voting equipment, and return it to the Auditor/Treasurer's Office with the thumb drives still secured in the voting machine.
When the voting machine gets back to the Auditor/Treasurer's Office, Thompson clips the seal for the thumb drive and then walks it over to a staff member who puts the drive in a dedicated election laptop that is not connected in any way to the county's server or computer system. The laptop sends the election results directly to the Secretary of State's Office.
Finally, to verify the results of all elections, Minnesota state statute calls for a canvassing board to certify the results. The board is made up of the county auditor, the court administrator, the mayor of the largest city in the county and two county commissioners.
Members of the canvassing board conduct an audit of the results by hand counting three randomly picked precincts. The result of the hand count must be within less than 1% of the machine-counted votes. For instance, if there were 1,200 votes cast in the precinct, it can't be off by more than two votes.
On top of this, the Secretary of State's Office also does its own random audits and reviews to verify the accuracy of the election results.
"I hope Minnesotans can feel confident, wherever you sit or stand politically, it doesn't matter, that we have a clean and honest system," Simon said.