Equality in voting Kiffmeyer’s goal

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 8, 2000

"Every vote should be treated equally.

Friday, December 08, 2000

"Every vote should be treated equally. Just because a precinct is small doesn’t mean that its votes should be less significant than those in a metro area."

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With that statement, Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer summed up her goal for Minnesota elections and those of the nation. Kiffmeyer spoke to a dozen Austin residents and city and county officials Thursday night in a town hall meeting.

"Nursing homes were the special flavor of the night," Kiffmeyer said after the meeting. Questions raised and a confirmation from Kiffmeyer made it clear that the elderly are the population at the greatest risk of disenfranchisement. Several individuals present asked what steps can be taken to assure that the elderly’s votes are cast and counted. Examples of physical and mental impairments creating voting difficulties were given.

"It’s a touchy issue," Kiffmeyer said. "We don’t want to disenfranchise anyone, but voting becomes a problem when someone isn’t capable."

"We tend to err on the side of helping them vote," said Mower County Auditor Woody Vereide.

Mayor Rietz reported that City Clerk Lucy Johnson said that the only complaints by officials this year concerned election day registrations. They were overwhelming this year and caused some delays at the polling places.

A possible solution is an idea Kiffmeyer called "investing in democracy." The idea involves supplying human resource employees with voter registration cards, to be included in new employee packets.

This solution is just one of many subjects that will be discussed when Kiffmeyer gathers in Dallas with a taskforce of secretaries of state from around the country on Dec. 13 and 14. The goal will be problem-solving through the sharing of positive information about state election procedures and results.

"I’m happy to report that we are chad-free in Minnesota," Kiffmeyer said, eliciting laughter from the group.

Dallas agenda items include national universal voting hours, the electoral college and election day voter registration.

Kiffmeyer said that Minnesota can boast the highest voter turnout in the nation – close to 70 percent. Reasons given for why three of 10 Minnesota voters chose not to cast a vote included voters feeling that they were not informed enough about the candidates presented.

Of 2.4 million votes cast in Minnesota, 16,646 individuals did not register a vote for the office of president. Kiffmeyer said that these undercount votes could have been intentional or the votes cast may have been so light that they were not registered by voting machines.

In Mower County, 202 individuals, or 1 percent, did not vote for a presidential candidate.

Votes in the county are counted by hand or with scanning machines. Most rural counties either hand count, use scanners or a combination of the two. The Twin Cities area and Olmstead County strictly use scanners.

Mayor Rietz commented that the voting machines used in Austin beep when an undercount or overcount are found on the ballot, thereby allowing the voter to correct the problem immediately.

The mayor went on to ask why these machines cannot be universally mandated. Kiffmeyer said the machines, programming for them and the special ballots required are expensive. This prevents some cities, townships and counties from purchasing them.

Through work Kiffmeyer started in January 1999, she was able to achieve a price drop of $3,000 to $4,000 for scanning machines. Kiffmeyer is still interested in continuing this work, and hopes that the federal government will supply funding to states for elections based on population.

To aid in ballot standardization, The International Graphics Institute, a graphic design firm, has offered to aid the state in creating clear and effective ballots.

Kiffmeyer acknowledges that universal voting procedures can be a complicated topic, since currently only one-third of the precincts in the state have vote scanner counters.

"Is it reasonable to ask precincts to buy duplicate scanning machines when some precincts have recently purchased machines that may not be the chosen standard?" asked Kiffmeyer.

Walter Baldus asked the secretary if new technology can improve the system, by providing universal and instantaneous voting to many. Though computers can improve the process, it can also open it to attacks from hackers, Kiffmeyer said. The benefits and risks will need to be weighed.

She stressed that voters should take responsibility for their own votes. They should request a new ballot if they make an error on their original one. She said she expects that the Florida situation has taught voters to be more careful with how they mark their ballots.

Attendee Don Holder asked if anyone in the state is currently reviewing the election laws to prevent the legal issues Florida is currently experiencing.

"Though we have seen a lot about Florida’s weakness, there are a lot of good things there too," said Kiffmeyer. She went on to state that Minnesota Election Director Brad King is currently undertaking the legal review.

"I’m concerned about the example this election is setting for my children," concerned parent Dawn Willet said prior to the meeting.

Kiffmeyer responded to Willet and visiting Boy Scout Troop #108 by stating that it’s important to stress to children that the United States has experienced many periods of upheaval – the Civil War, Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam – but has always come through.

"The resolve should always be to work for peace," she said.

After the Dallas convention, Kiffmeyer believes she will have more answers for the questions raised in Thursday’s meeting.