Commentary

Your questions about the Minnesota election system, answered, part 1

October 27, 2022 6:00 am
Early Voting signs on a building in downtown Minnesota

A woman walks past the Downtown Early Vote Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.

Editor’s note: Since April we’ve been running a series of articles by Max Hailperin explaining how the Minnesota election system works. Today and tomorrow, we’re answering your (and our) questions about election administration. 

I want to vote but haven’t done so before. How do I do it?

Welcome to voting! It sounds like there’s a good chance you aren’t registered. That’s fine because you can register at the time you vote. However, this does require some extra paperwork. For that reason, I recommend voting in person, whether you do it ahead of Election Day at your local election office or on Election Day at your precinct polling place. That way, an expert will make sure everything is shipshape. They’ll also be glad to guide you through the rest of the voting process. If you do vote in person, be sure to bring one of the approved proofs of residence

If voting by mail works better for you, be sure to carefully follow the instructions that come with your ballot. You’ll need a witness, but I suggest going a step further and asking that person to also check your forms over to make sure you didn’t miss anything in filling them out.

Despite those cautionary remarks, voting really isn’t difficult. You can find more tips for new voters on the Secretary of State’s website. 

I’ve moved and not updated my registration. Can I still vote?

Yes! You can register at your new address at the time you vote, just as described above for a new voter.

The one other piece of advice I’ve got for you pertains to any absentee ballot application you may have received that has your name and address pre-printed on it. Check whether it is your old address or your new one. If it is the old address and you still want to use the form, be sure to cross out the information that is no longer correct.

I’ve just been released from prison. Can I vote?

Maybe. Many people who are released from prison still are serving a portion of their sentence in the community. If you are under a felony sentence, you cannot vote until you are “off paper.” That is, cleared of all parts of the sentence. The Secretary of State has more information.

Can the tabulation machines be hacked?

Asking whether a computer system can be hacked isn’t as useful as asking how much effort it would require, how easily detectable it would be, how readily the damage could be mitigated, and whether it would be worth anyone’s while. The answer to the question of theoretical possibility is almost always “yes.” It’s the other answers that determine how worried we should be.

Minnesota’s elections are much more secure than the individual devices used to conduct those elections. The security of the election as a whole depends on such factors as the retention of hand-marked paper ballots and the presence of tamper-evident seals on the tabulators. So if a seal is broken and there’s reason to think the tabulator has been tampered with, the ballots can simply be recounted — there’s no need to rely on the results from a potentially compromised machine.

I don’t spend all my time reassuring those who worry too much. I spend some of my time persuading election officials to worry more. In fact, until political actors tilted the balance of concerns, I spent most of my time on the worry-more angle. But here’s the thing: It wasn’t the tabulation that I was worried about. In that, I wasn’t alone. I don’t think any experienced analyst of election cybersecurity would rank tabulators at the top of their concerns. 

What happens if it’s really close? Will there be a recount? How will they do it? Can I trust it? 

Keep in mind that “really close” means something different for election administration than it does for politics. In the political world, if pre-election polling indicates two candidates are within a few percentage points of each other, the talk is of “neck and neck.” If the election results then show the actual margin to be a few tenths of a percentage point, the talk shifts to “razor thin margin.”

But election administrators know that the number of ballots that would cause trouble for optical scan tabulation is measured in the hundredths of a percent. Even a margin of a few tenths of a percent isn’t going to be overcome by a recount. For example, when Mark Dayton defeated Tom Emmer for governor in 2010 by 8,770 votes out of 2.1 million — a proportion of 0.4% — Emmer’s recount was hopeless from the start. Overcoming a margin even half that size would have been unrealistic.

To provide an extra measure of public confidence, Minnesota law provides for a publicly funded recount for any election with a margin of victory less than 0.25%. (An even more generous 0.5% standard applies to small races.) To take an example, if a candidate loses by 0.23%, they don’t stand any realistic hope of overturning the result, but they might as well ask for a recount — it won’t cost them anything.

The recount is limited to examining the votes marked on the ballots. Other questions, such as whether ballots were correctly accepted from eligible voters, lie outside the scope. The ballots are retrieved from secure storage and the seals on the ballot containers are verified. Then the counting begins.

Recount officials look at each ballot and determine whether it is a vote for Candidate A, Candidate B, or neither. They take into account state law concerning the interpretation of non-machine-readable markings. For example, if the ovals next to both candidates are filled in, but one of them has an X through it, that X is interpreted as an attempt to obliterate the marking and so the other one is counted.

Based on the interpreted vote, the ballot is placed onto one of three piles. A representative of Candidate A looks at the ballots placed on Candidate B’s pile and vice versa. Both representatives look at the pile of ballots being counted for neither. The representatives can object if they disagree.

If the recount officials and candidate representatives don’t immediately reach agreement, the ballot is moved to a pile of challenged ballots. Once all the ballots from a precinct are categorized, the challenged ballots are reviewed again more carefully. Any ballot for which agreement is now reached gets moved to the appropriate pile. The remaining challenged ballots will be adjudicated by the canvassing board.

Once the piling is done, the piles are counted in groups of 25. Two recount officials need to get the same count. Candidate representatives can also flag any problem in the counting.

For a statewide recount, this process needs to go on in each of the 87 counties. And within each county, there may be adequate resources to recount several precincts simultaneously on different tables. Thus, the entire process is quite a logistical challenge for the election administrators, the campaigns and even the press corps.

Having personally participated in recounts as both an observer and a recount official, I can say the degree of order that is maintained is remarkable. What could be chaotic is instead a well-oiled machine. And in each case I’m aware of, the lawyer for the losing candidate has announced afterwards that they too were impressed by what they saw.

That should be your measure of whether to trust a recount result. If those who observe the recount — press, campaign representatives, members of the public — come away saying the process was carefully followed, that should give you confidence.

What’s a “provisional ballot”? Do we have those in Minnesota? Should we?

A provisional ballot is a way to give someone a second chance at voting who otherwise would be excluded from voting. They are primarily used in states that require registration in advance of the election. In those states, an error on the part of the election administrators might result in someone not being on the list of registered voters, even though they in fact registered.

Rather than turn the voter away as unregistered, the poll workers can offer them a provisional ballot. That ballot is not fed into the ballot counter. Instead, it is sealed in an envelope with identifying information on the outside, much like an absentee ballot. During the canvass period, if the election administrators come to believe the voter’s claim of advance registration, they can open the envelope and add the ballot’s votes to the vote counts.

A requirement for advance registration is just one example of a barrier in the way of eligible voters. Provisional ballots are a general mechanism that can be used to partially overcome other barriers as well. For example, some states that require voters to present specific photo ID when they vote use provisional ballots to partially accommodate those who show up without such ID. It’s only a partial accommodation because the voter generally has to do extra work in the days after the election, such as bringing ID to the elections office.

Because Minnesota has so few barriers in the way of eligible voters, our Legislature hasn’t been motivated to institute provisional ballots. In principle, provisional ballots could help voters who don’t have up-to-date registration and find themselves unable to muster any of the various proofs of residence that would enable election-day registration. But there are very few such voters.

In practice, the question of provisional ballots in Minnesota boils down to whether to enact new barriers to voting. If those barriers were enacted, then provisional ballots would allow them to be partially overcome. But the debate isn’t about the provisional ballots, it is about whether to make it more difficult to vote for eligible Minnesotans who currently can just register and vote.

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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.”

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