Phil Chapman fed a stack of test ballots zooming through an S-curve of machinery belonging to the DS850 high-speed electronic ballot counter.
"It is extremely accurate and extremely fast," Chapman, St. Louis County's director of elections, said of the machine as the ballots whipped through in a few heartbeats.
Friday's accuracy test of election equipment in the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth proved everything to be in working order. It drew no community watchers despite a public announcement. Chapman wondered aloud why nobody ever comes, but he also forgave residents so long as they voted.
Through Friday, absentee ballots requested and received continued to set records as people embraced alternative voting methods during the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, 36,500 absentee and mail-in ballots had been received by the county, including early ballots cast at city halls and large precincts. All told, 54,986 voters had so far requested absentee ballots.
Absentee ballot counting began this week throughout Minnesota, two weeks prior to the Nov. 3 general election. Now that the public accuracy test is out of the way, Chapman said St. Louis County would begin counting this weekend, and continue to count early-arriving ballots into Election Day.
Only the ballot-counting machines will know the early results, which are stored on the machines and aren't allowed to be made public until after polls close Nov. 3. The machines are not connected to the internet, and are not at risk of being hacked.
After the county saw absentee requests spike to record highs during the August primary, the auditor's office hired extra staff to brace for the general election.
Peggy Carlson is one of the extra hands hired to help with election season. A Duluth resident, Carlson is retired from 30 years of work in county administration. She was happy to be back on the familiar second floor of the courthouse for the accuracy event.
"I'm a patriot," Carlson said. "I've always wanted to work in an election."
The voting machines, both the ballot counters and assisted-voting devices, which use touch screens to aid voters, were all working like clockwork, Chapman said. There already had been three rounds of preliminary testing prior to the public one, which is aimed at providing election transparency.
Jonathan Blevins, a county information specialist, was running "zero tapes" on ballot-counting machines that will reside at the Duluth courthouse, Virginia Government Services Center and unorganized township precincts located at Sand Lake Chapel and Lakeland Fire Hall. The county is in charge of unorganized townships, while all other precincts are also required to test their own equipment.
"This is required to be run," Blevins said, holding a zero tape and explaining how it indicates that no votes have been counted prior to the machines being put into use for election purposes. "The precincts are required to attach the zero tapes to the results."
Chapman addressed several other issues swirling around the election:
- Counting absentee ballots — He reiterated that absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day will be counted for seven days after the election. The new rule could impact tight races. "It's a change," Chapman said. "We're so used to having results election night, but it could require some patience."
- Voter intimidation and unauthorized poll watching — Chapman addressed the potential for this on Election Day, something that has been encouraged by President Donald Trump. "I'm confident we are not going to have any issues," Chapman said, explaining that Auditor Nancy Nilsen is staying in close contact with local law enforcement and the Secretary of State's office through regular briefings. Should a voter feel intimidated at the polls on Election Day, Chapman said they should contact law enforcement and tell election judges within the precinct.
- Spoiled absentee ballots — Chapman said completing the signature envelope is most important. Up to now with any spoiled absentee ballots, the voter would have received a new ballot with a letter explaining their mistake. As the election approaches, the county may directly reach out to voters whose ballots need to be readdressed.
- Naked ballots — Regarding mail-in ballots received that are missing their security envelopes, Chapman reiterated it is more important to get the signature envelope done correctly, and that ballots which could be verified minus the security envelope would be counted. The signature envelope requires personal details such as a driver's license number or last four digits of a person's Social Security number.
Asked how he enjoyed this time of year, Chapman was clear: "I love it. We want people to get out and vote. We've got a lot of ballots to run already. It's going to take us right up until Election Day Nov. 3. We're going to be busy."
This story was updated at 8:15 a.m. Oct. 25 to correct where the ballot machines being tested will be located. It was originally posted at 3:17 p.m. Oct. 24.