Your questions about the Minnesota election system, answered

Part 2: Dead candidates, vouching, absentee ballot handling

October 28, 2022 6:00 am

Voters cast ballots at Brackett Recreation Center in Minneapolis on Nov. 2, 2021. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

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

Why should we trust the results we get on Nov. 8?

We shouldn’t entirely trust the results on election night. Those are unofficial results, or as I prefer to call them, preliminary results. They come from the elections office, rather than from exit polling, but they haven’t been through the full process of double checking and revision. The state canvassing board meets on November 29th to certify the official results.

That said, election administrators have taken a lot of steps to minimize the risk they’ll need to make any substantial adjustments to the initial results. They know that public confidence depends on having results reported both quickly and reliably, even though those two are not entirely compatible.

To take one example, they’ve verified during the pre-election testing that results upload correctly. If a configuration error swapped two candidates’ results, that would have been caught then, rather than only after the election.

I am hearing about ballots going out with wrong names and a dead person and some stuff like that. What’s up with that? Who’s responsible, and is there a way to fix those issues in the future?

The dead person is Beverly Peterson, who was a candidate for House District 67A. Due to the timing of her death, Ramsey County initially did the ballot layout with her name and then later redid it with the name of her replacement, Scott Hesselgrave. Unfortunately, they sent the wrong file to the printer and so the earliest absentee ballots sent out had Peterson’s name instead of Hesselgrave’s. Everyone who had not yet voted got the corrected ballot and everyone who had already voted was notified of their option to cancel their ballot and cast a new one.

No other situations have turned up in Minnesota this year in which ballots went out with incorrect candidate names. However, there were a few errors of other kinds. In Kittson and Roseau counties, the designation of candidates’ party affiliations and judicial candidates’ incumbency were omitted. And in Murray County, the heading over the races for state House and Senate listed the old district numbers rather than the new ones. Each of these problems has been addressed.

The responsibility in all cases lies with the respective county. They need to carefully proofread their ballots before sending them for printing. And as Ramsey County’s situation illustrates, they should also proofread the printed ballots that come back.

All 87 counties witnessed these four counties’ failures and are now on notice they need to redouble their commitment to these established processes. The counties have best-practices guidance available, such as from the Elections Group.

Fresh eyes and checklists can go a long way, though we need to understand that in a small county with many other responsibilities, the fresh eyes can be hard to come by. The citizens need to play their own part by supporting the funding of appropriate staffing levels and by minimizing distractions. For example, every duplicative request for records of a previous election is time taken away from proofreading for the next election.

There’s something else worth noting about these errors: They affected only some counties and not others because of the decentralized nature of election administration in Minnesota. This decentralization stands in the way of achieving uniform perfection, but by the same token, it stands in the way of a uniform failure. In a similar vein, having 87 counties administer elections and tabulate votes makes widespread fraud difficult. It would require too many willing participants.  

What happens if the victor in the 2nd Congressional District is the woman who died?

The reference is to Paula Overby, candidate of the Legal Marijuana Now party in the 2nd District. She died late enough to remain on the ballot, unlike the previously mentioned situation in House District 67A. Even if she receives the most votes, she will be unable to take office — dead people can’t serve in Congress. The vacancy in office would need to be filled through a special election.

Who are the people that will make sure everything is on the up-and-up?

Lots of people play some role. For example, political parties keep an eye out for problems adverse to their candidates and seek remedies from the courts. However, the question may be referring more specifically to the people serving on the canvassing boards. They are the ones who certify the election results.

Here’s what the statute says: “The county canvassing board shall consist of the county auditor, the court administrator of the district court, the mayor or chair of the town board of the county’s most populous municipality, and two members of the county board selected by the board from its members who are not candidates at the election,” with some additional details regarding designees and replacements.

“The State Canvassing Board shall consist of the secretary of state, two judges of the Supreme Court, and two judges of the district court selected by the secretary of state. None of the judges shall be a candidate at the election.” There is provision for replacements but not designees.

I hear a lot of talk about going to hand counting every ballot. Is that a good idea?

No. Minnesota has extensive experience with hand counting from our tabulation audits and recounts. This experience has taught us that if the hand counting is extremely carefully done, it produces results extremely close to the machine counts. That’s ordinarily taken as a validation of the machine counting. 

But it can also be taken the other way around, as a validation of the accuracy of hand counting. However, the catch is that the careful conditions that apply in these limited circumstances cannot be replicated for every race on every ballot in the immediate aftermath of the election. Studies have shown that under those less-ideal circumstances, hand counting produces significantly less accurate results than machine counting.

Our experience has also taught us that hand counting is extremely labor intensive and time consuming. Given the rumors that start to fly when election results are delayed by even a few hours, holding them up long enough for a hand count is a recipe for loss of public confidence.  

What’s an election judge? Republicans have been calling for more partisan election judges. Is that a good idea?

Election judges in Minnesota are a particular category of election worker who must either declare the major party they affiliate with or that they are not affiliated with any. They work in five different contexts: Precinct polling places; health care facility visiting teams; the ballot boards that process absentee and mail ballots; post-election reviews; and recounts.

There have been two different pushes from Republican officials this year. One is simply to persuade more Republicans to apply for positions as election judges. The other is to get local governments to appoint more election judges to roles that can also be served by nonpartisan election workers, particularly on the ballot boards.

Regarding the second point, the push to get more election judges on ballot boards has taken three forms. One was an unsuccessful attempt to get state courts to invalidate the use of nonpartisan election workers. Likewise, there is a longer-term plan to seek this restriction from the Legislature. But in the meantime, the Republicans have simply been trying to persuade local governments to exercise their discretion to use election judges.

As to whether this is a good thing, I would offer a mixed response. Getting more people to step forward as election judges is a good thing. Curtailing the flexibility of local governments is not. However, many local governments are choosing within their existing flexibility to make more use of election judges. It tends to create a greater sense of transparency, but it can conflict with more mundane human resources considerations of the kind that apply even outside the elections context.

Does the secretary of state count the votes? Is there a scenario in which Steve Simon, a Democrat, fixes things to help his fellow Democrats?

The secretary of state does not count the votes. Even staff in the secretary’s office do not count the votes. All vote counting is done at the local level.

More generally, the secretary is insulated from any undue influence over specific election outcomes by the following three mechanisms.

First, election administration is decentralized to counties and municipalities. The secretary’s office provides a broad framework to those local units but does not apply that framework to specific circumstances. For example, the secretary’s office provides uniform guidance on how the signatures on absentee ballot envelopes should be evaluated, but no one in that office scrutinizes specific envelopes. That’s done by local absentee ballot board members.

Second, within the secretary’s office, support for election activities is provided almost entirely by the professional staff. These staff members are “classified,” which is Minnesota’s way of saying they are civil-service employees hired through a merit process. The secretary’s political appointees have only limited involvement.

Third, when the staff brings the final election results to the State Canvassing Board for certification, the secretary is only one of the five members of that board. The other four are all judges, including two from the Minnesota Supreme Court.

I’ve seen election judges initial a whole packet of ballots when they open it. Shouldn’t they wait and initial each ballot as they issue it to make sure only a signed-in voter gets one?

No, the election judges were following the law, which requires them to initial the ballots as soon as they have opened the shrink-wrapped packet. The relevant language is that “Before the voting begins, or as soon as possible after it begins, at least two election judges shall each initial the backs of all the ballots.” 

The point of this is to differentiate ballots that arrived in the polling place as part of the official supply from any other ballots that may have been slipped in. They are not a way of ensuring only signed-in voters obtain these official ballots. Instead, that’s achieved through other means. The election judges keep watch over the ballot supply. They only issue a ballot in exchange for a voter receipt. And they verify that the number of ballots cast matches the number of voters who signed in.

I received an absentee ballot in the mail but have decided that I’d rather vote in person at my precinct polling place on Election Day. Should I bring the ballot along so that they can be sure I haven’t sent it in and won’t?

No. The election judges really don’t want any outside ballots coming into their polling place. That’s true even though there are mechanisms in place to ensure no outside ballot gets counted. It just raises too many suspicions if voters see spare ballots wandering around the room.

So how do you vote, then? In Minnesota, the answer is the same as any other voter would. You aren’t totally off base to think your having been issued an absentee ballot might be a barrier. Some states work that way. And you aren’t totally off base to think that barrier could be overcome if you presented the unvoted ballot. Some states work that way. But Minnesota doesn’t.

In Minnesota, the election judges in a precinct polling place don’t even have information about which voters were issued absentee ballots, just which voters had absentee ballots accepted. If you’ve had a ballot accepted, you can’t vote. If you haven’t, you can. That includes if the absentee ballot is still sitting on your kitchen counter. But it also includes if it is in the mail on the way back to the elections office.

To make that work without double voting, the elections office is very careful about accepting any absentee ballot that arrives on Election Day. They don’t open the envelope until they’ve communicated with the polling place.

Can a voter who registers at their polling place vouch for the residence of another Election Day registrant?

In general, yes, an Election Day registrant can vouch for the residence of eight further Election Day registrants in the same precinct. However, that’s only if the initial Election Day registrant used some other proof of residence, such as an up-to-date driver’s license. If their own proof of residence was by vouching, then they cannot serve as a voucher in that election. So-called “chain vouching” is explicitly prohibited.

All of this is with regard to vouching by a registered voter from within the precinct. There is an entirely different category of vouching, namely vouching by an authorized staff member of a residential facility. Such staff members do not need to be registered voters and so the question of their own means of registration doesn’t arise.

I’ve read that a whole bunch of people voted even though their registration was challenged. Does this mean they were ineligible voters?

No. Most commonly, the challenge annotation on their registration is because mail sent to their registered address came back as undeliverable. There are several ways that can happen even with an eligible voter.

Sometimes the voter is still residing at their registered address. The challenge may have resulted from some problem with postal delivery. For example, their mailbox may have had only a roommate’s name on it, and the postal carrier may for that reason not have realized they lived there.

Or the voter may be residing at the registered address again rather than still. That is, they moved away and moved back. In that case, the postal return may have been completely correct: They were at the time of the mailing not at that address. And yet, it is also entirely correct for them to vote at their registered address, given that it is where they live on Election Day. (They also need to have resided somewhere in Minnesota for the 20 days prior to Election Day.)

In these circumstances, if the voter went to their precinct polling place, the election judges would see the challenge notation and so question them about their residence. Upon confirming that they still or again resided at the registered address, they would swear to this under penalty of perjury and then would vote.

But there’s another possibility: Maybe the voter really does now live somewhere other than their registered address. As long as their new address is in Minnesota, they are still eligible to vote. They just need to re-register at their new address. If they go to the new precinct polling place, they’ll go through the same-day registration process, which includes providing proof of residence. And if instead they go to the old polling place, the election judges there will kindly provide them directions to the new polling place.

The key point is that in either case, the voter remained eligible to vote. The only question was where.

Are there ballot drop boxes in Minneapolis and Saint Paul?

No. A list of ballot drop box locations is on the secretary of state’s website.

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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.”