Minnesota officials check out new voting machines in South Dakotaby Cara Hetland, Minnesota Public Radio
Election officials from across Minnesota will be monitoring the municipal elections in Sioux Falls Tuesday. About 25 officials from Minnesota, including Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, will be in South Dakota to review the performance of a new voting machine, which is designed to help voters who have disabilities.
Sioux Falls, S.D. — The machine offers assistance for voters with disabilities who may have trouble with the normal voting procedure. It doesn't count votes, it only marks the ballot for a disabled voter who needs help.
Until now, voters who had vision, hearing or physical problems had to have an election judge mark their ballots for them. The new machine gives those voters the same privacy that others have. Sue Roust, Minnehaha County auditor, says it's not clear how necessary the machines are.
"We have some precinct judges who say, 'I never have someone come in a wheelchair.' But this machine is much more than that," says Roust. "It's to help people with visual impairments. People who may not be able to read real well. And so we still aren't going to know because anyone can use it."
The touch-screen machine is called Automark, and is built by Omaha-based Election Systems and Software. South Dakota bought about 600 of these machines, while Minnesota purchased about 4,000. One of them will be installed at each polling place.
Federal money allocated in the Help America Vote Act paid for the machines, which cost about $5,000 each. States are required to have them in place this year.
The Automark looks like a large printer with a screen. It sits on a table that's about the height of a chair or wheelchair.
A voter inserts a paper ballot, the machine scans it, and the ballot comes up on the screen one race at a time. The voter can increase the size of the print, or use headphones to listen to the ballot being read to them.
The Automark reviews the ballot and alerts the voter if they under-voted, meaning selected only one candidate when they could legally vote for two. The machine will also warn the voter if they over-voted -- say they selected three in a race that only allowed two. Then the voter can print out the ballot to be counted.
Minnesota's Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer is interested in how the new machines perform. She says she hopes they increase voter accuracy.
"It's really a shame when you come to vote, and the voter makes a mistake -- thus voiding a vote. With this equipment we will actually capture more votes with the same number of people, because their ballots will be more accurate," says Kiffmeyer.
The Automark machine won't be the only new thing at many polling places in Minnesota. Some voters will use an optical scanning machine to count their votes for the first time.
Kiffmeyer says the optical scanners have been used in the Twin Cities where they reduced the error rate down to one-tenth of 1 percent. But outside the metro area, where the machines will be new, the error rate has been as high as 22 percent.
Kiffmeyer says while she's in Sioux Falls she'll see how well election workers are trained on the new Automark machines, and what kind of technical support is needed on Election Day.
College computer students will be at Sioux Falls polling places to assist with the voting machines. After the election, poll workers will offer feedback on how things went. Officials also welcome voter feedback.
The first time the Automark machines will be used in Minnesota is for the Sept. 12 primary. Look for demonstrations of the machines at county fairs this summer.
- Morning Edition, 04/11/2006, 6:50 a.m.