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Cheaters gonna cheat, but in Farmington they'll probably get caught

Election judge Nancy Bjerke inspects a voting machine during a public test. (Deanna Weniger | Independent Town Pages)1 / 2
Election judge Dave Stanek compares voting test results to a preprinted spreadsheet. (Deanna Weniger | Independent Town Pages)2 / 2

In the final stages of an election filled to the brim with October surprises and with the specter of election workers squinting at hanging chads in the not-so-distant past, it's no wonder the public is wondering if elections can be rigged.

Cindy Muller can't speak for the rest of the nation, but she's sure Farmington's voting integrity is as secure as the locked rooms where election ballots are stored.

"When anyone says elections can be rigged, it is very offensive to the voting staff because of all the work we go through to ensure the integrity of the process," said Muller, the city's administrative assistant who oversees local elections.

On Monday, she and three head election judges performed a public demonstration of three of the seven voting machines that will be used in the general election Nov. 8.

The machines are relatively new, having been used for the August primary and for the 2015 school election.

The testing process has a series of checks and balances that makes an observing outsider feel as if he's witnessing a high level exchange of secure nuclear codes. And the judges take it just as seriously.

Dakota County first runs diagnostics on the machines to make sure they are all working properly. Premarked ballots and corresponding spreadsheets are sent to Muller from the county. Muller then performs her own tests and places her results and the keys to the machines into a sealed box. The tape is signed by Muller and dated in front of witnesses.

That box is opened in front of the election judges for the public test. Inside the box are three packets of 59 test ballots each and keys to open the machines.

The judges, who had been trained at an earlier time, either in July or October, were given their keys and set to work opening the machines.

First, a cover that encloses the machine is opened. Then, the judges open another secure compartment that has the monitor in it that displays the ballot tabulations. Once the machines are plugged in, the judge instructs the computer to print out a tape showing how many ballots have been counted.

The tape, called a zero tape, must show a zero beside every candidate, and its number must match the ballot number to ensure that the ballots specifically designed for that precinct are being used.

"By printing that zero tape, it tells them that there haven't been any votes cast on this card. All votes are zero," Muller explained.

Once the judges have confirmed that the ballots are correct and that there are zero votes in the machine, they insert the 59 test ballots one at a time.

As each ballot goes in, the judge must wait for the machine to "ding" to indicate that the ballot has been received.

Voters should listen for that sound when they cast their ballots. If they don't hear it, the machine did not record their vote.

The test ballots include one that is blank and another that has been overmarked. A warning will appear on the monitor, letting the voter know there is a problem with his ballot. At that point, the voter has a choice. He can either hit the "cast" button, letting the machine know he wants the ballot to be tabulated that way, or he can hit the "return" button which means the ballot will be returned to the voter, and he will need to go to an election judge to get a clean ballot.

It also has a test ballot that is rejected because the tracking marks have been tampered with, which means it is not the correct ballot for that precinct. This way cheaters can't bring a ballot from another precinct to vote.

Once all test ballots go through, the judge must print out a new tape which details how many votes were cast for each candidate. Those numbers must correspond to the numbers on a preprinted spreadsheet.

If all numbers match up, the test is successful. The judges sign the tapes and pack the machines back up. The tapes and the keys go into the original box, which is resealed with tape, signed and dated.

All absentee ballots are stored in a locked room at city hall. Up until a week before the election, absentee voters have the option of changing their votes.

Muller said in her experience, that has never happened.

On election day, the judges will all run another zero tape test before the polls open.

When the polls close, the number of ballots received must equal the number of voters marked on the rolls.

The numbers are sent electronically to the county and the paper ballots are stored in a locked room at city hall for up to 22 months.

Andy Lokken, elections and vitals manager for Dakota County, said of the two dozen people election judges suspected of cheating in the last presidential election, only one proceeded to prosecution.

"It's extremely rare," he said of cheating. "There are a lot of safeguards people aren't aware of."

Can a student cheat by voting at college in a different state and voting at home as well?

Lokken said Minnesota's system is linked with several other surrounding states which notify a person's precinct if his vote was cast elsewhere.

Can cheating happen when a neighbor vouches for someone who just moved to the area and has no way of proving he lives in this precinct?

The voucher can only vouch for up to eight people and his name and identification are recorded, should there be a question later.

Can cheating happen when health care institutions vouch for their patients?

Lokken said a list of valid vouchers must be submitted by the institution. Election judges are on hand to make sure the patients are not being coerced.

"There's just no way anybody could rig the system," said election judge Blanche Reichert.

It helps that Farmington is small enough for judges to have a good sense of what's legitimate. None of the head judges — many have worked elections for several years — have ever had a problem with cheaters.

"In my mind, it's pretty tight," said Hazel Truax, election judge.

She's not saying people won't try to cheat.

"As much as people spend time trying to do it right, there are always people out there that spend as much time trying to cheat," she said.

If they try in Farmington, however, they'll probably get caught.

"If your name isn't in the book, you're not voting," Reichert said.