Elections explained: Who does what?

By: - April 18, 2022 6:00 am

Nick Green walks to the voting booths with his son, Flynn, 2, at Edison High School in Minneapolis Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of columns between now and Election Day by Max Hailperin, who will guide Reformer readers through the mechanics of election administration. 

You turn a tap and clean water pours out. You cast a ballot and election results get announced. And just as you don’t need to think about pumps, pipes and ultrafiltration membranes and all the people who keep them working, you don’t need to think about all the moving parts of Minnesota’s democracy, which tens of thousands of your neighbors are keeping working. 

And yet, it’s worth giving a bit of thought. Why?

Partly to cultivate a sense of appreciation. People are at work before the election is on your radar and after you think it’s over, doing work you never even thought of, all so that democracy keeps happening. 

Paying attention is also important so that you have some rational basis for trust. Election administrators have never asked for blind faith, and lately they’ve been getting precious little faith of any kind. You may not need to go into the weeds, but paying some attention to the landscape will let you see how trust is earned.

This is the first of a series of columns. In subsequent pieces, I’ll dive closer to the weeds of each specific topic, from registration to recounts.

But first, I want to start with the 40,000-foot view, listing some of the component parts of election administration and indicating who in Minnesota shoulders each responsibility.

What’s done by the state, the counties, the cities and townships? It’s complex, but on the other hand, it’s a wonderful example of coordination and collaboration. Indeed, one of the reasons you should trust Minnesota elections is because of how many people are working together across levels of government, from St. Paul to your hometown.

Let’s start at the beginning. Maybe the first step in an election is when the date is set, or the list of polling places adopted, or the candidates file for office. But from a voter’s perspective, the starting point is registration. In Minnesota, you can register in person, by mail, online, when getting a driver’s license, or when voting. 

But regardless of how you do it, your county will process the application. If you apply via the secretary of state’s office or your local city clerk, they’ll simply pass the application along to the county. Why? The same reason as just about everything concerning elections: Because the Legislature said so. In 1973, they put counties in charge of voter registration. Before that point, it was a municipal (city or township) responsibility, in those municipalities that required registration — in many parts of the state, you could just vote.

Counties play a significant role in Election Day voting as well. At a minimum, they do the preparatory work of designing the ballots and the corresponding ballot-scanning configurations for the voting systems. And they do the culminating work of compiling the election results.

However, in between those two, municipal election officials typically step in with the actual polling place work. They are the ones who establish the sites, hire and train the election judges, and ensure the right materials are in the right places at the right times. Again, that’s a decision the Legislature made.

The counties handle any unincorporated areas, where no city or township government exists. (Out of Minnesota’s 87 counties, 16 have unincorporated territory.) But there’s also some flexibility. The county can agree to take on the polling place responsibilities that would otherwise rest on the municipalities. Nor is this limited to small towns that lack the resources. The state’s second-largest city, St. Paul, stays entirely out of election administration because it has contracted with Ramsey County for election services.

Absentee voting is also flexibly divided between counties and municipalities, but with the default reversed: The counties are entirely in charge, unless they delegate responsibility to a municipality. Of Minnesota’s 853 cities and 1,781 townships, 126 administered absentee voting in 2020.

Municipalities find it particularly helpful to administer the in-person form of absentee voting, allowing their residents to go to a city office and vote early. But they can also mail ballots out and process those that are mailed back. Indeed, two of the largest vote-by-mail operations in the state are both physically located within Minneapolis. One is run by the city of Minneapolis, serving its residents, while the other is run by Hennepin County, serving other parts of the county.

For brevity, this leaves out many important parts of election administration, including the testing, audits, and recounts that counties and municipalities use to ensure correct results. Later columns in this series will address those topics. Here, I’d rather answer a question that may be nagging you: If counties and municipalities do all the work, what’s left for the secretary of state’s office?

The secretary of state supports local election administrators with the three C’s: coordination, communication, and consistency. Much of this is provided via three major computer systems: the Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS), Election Reporting System (ERS), and Voter Information Portal (VIP). 

When a county registers a voter who has moved, it doesn’t have to notify the previous county to un-register them; it just updates the record in SVRS. When a county submits results for its part of a statewide race, ERS combines those results with the others. And when a voter looks up where to vote, or tracks the status of their absentee ballot, VIP provides uniform statewide access to that locally recorded information.

Beyond these statewide systems, the secretary of state’s office also certifies all the voting systems local governments purchase. Different systems may be used in different places, but they all meet the same statewide standards.

The secretary of state’s office supports consistency by training county election officials — including training them on how to train municipal officials, and on down to the election judges at the polling places. The elections division within the secretary of state’s office has experienced election administrators who know what local officials will need to know about the laws, processes and technology.

In addition to providing the hours of instruction that county officials need for certification, they publish a whole range of guide documents. That way, absentee ballots are accepted or rejected according to the same standards statewide, and all recounts use the same standards for adjudicating unusual ballot markings.

The secretary of state’s office also serves as a trusted source of information for the Legislature and the general public. If you have any doubts about elections — even any doubts about what I write — your best choice is generally to turn to your city or county elections office. They have the most detailed, accurate information. But many Minnesotans don’t understand the local roles, and so they turn to the state. And that’s fine, too. The secretary of state’s office can be trusted to give you a straight answer, and if they don’t have the information, to refer you to the appropriate local office.

This year, one of the races on the ballot will be for secretary of state. If a candidate focuses on changes to elections policy, remember that is the Legislature’s role. What the secretary needs to do is hire, retain, and supervise a team of professionals who will keep the systems running, make sure accurate information flows, and coordinate with the 87 counties and 2,634 municipalities.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Max Hailperin
Max Hailperin

Max Hailperin is a professor emeritus of mathematics, computer science, and statistics at Gustavus Adolphus College. He earned his Ph.D. at Stanford University and S.B. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since 2010, he has specialized in the intersection between election technology and election policy, and in 2014, he was awarded the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) Medallion Award “in recognition of his service and contributions to election-related technology and legislation.”