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Election security a top priority for Nobles County Auditor-Treasurer's office

"As a resident of Nobles County, I can sleep at night knowing that we follow the guidelines and follow state statutes and that our elections are secure.”

A sign with an arrow and American flag telling people where to vote
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WORTHINGTON — Election season is in full swing, with only days left until Nov. 8, and here in Nobles County, the office of the Auditor-Treasurer is gearing up to make sure this election runs as smoothly — and securely — as those prior.

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“We're the face of elections in Nobles County, but also, we live here,” said Deputy Auditor-Treasurer Cathy Roos. “We take an oath, and integrity and security is always on our mind. As a resident of Nobles County, I can sleep at night knowing that we follow the guidelines and follow state statutes and that our elections are secure.”

It’s a responsibility she and County Auditor-Treasurer Joyce Jacobs take seriously, from pre-election preparation and early voting, all the way through the post-election review.

“Minnesota conducts one of the strongest post-election audits in the country,” Roos shared. “It is required by law … that after every state general election, Minnesota counties perform a post-election review of election results.”

That review consists of a hand count of votes in selected precincts — as the largest population in Nobles County, the city of Worthington always has a precinct counted — which are then compared to results from the voting machines, and displayed on the Secretary of State website.

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But that’s only a small part of the state-mandated measures Nobles County implements to ensure security in its elections.

Same day registration

While the regular registration deadline for voters was Oct. 18, Minnesota is one of 20 states that allow same-day voter registration. Prior to the October deadline, eligible voters can register online, in person, or by mail.

However, if you miss the deadline or need to register in a new precinct, individuals who have been a resident of the state for at least 20 days and meet all other voter qualifications can register at their polling place with the proper documentation .

Joyce Jacobs
Jacobs

“They have to prove their face, and they have to prove their place,” Jacobs reminds potential voters. Voters who have ID with their current address can bring that, but if it isn’t up-to-date, a current bill and ID can be presented.

If you don’t have that either, a registered voter from your precinct can vouch for your address by signing an oath.

“Our focus is so much about making sure that people who are eligible to vote can vote and that they are doing it in a safe and secure manner,” Jacobs added. “And we want as many people as are eligible to vote to vote.”

With the influx of voters who register on election day, Roos noted it can sometimes look like counties have more ballots cast than there are registered voters — but that’s just not the case.

As of the August primary, Nobles County had 9,811 registered voters, a slight increase over the last governor election in 2018. General elections typically encourage higher turnout than primaries, and with a 70.29% turnout in 2018 and 82.15% during the November presidential election, Jacobs is hopeful a large number of voters will cast their ballots — either at the polls or by mail.

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Mail-in and absentee ballots

Of Nobles County’s 40 voting precincts, 21 are mail-in precincts, with 17 being townships that sometimes struggle with finding election judges — who, Jacobs says, are a crucial part of elections, but the training and compensation can be a lot for townships.

“There's a lot of training that they must attend and be available for,” Jacobs noted. Every member of her staff who handles a ballot has gone through the two-hour minimum election judge training, just like the other 130 election judges throughout Nobles County who service in-person polling stations on election day.

In mail-in precincts, the process works a bit differently. In order to receive a mail-in ballot, potential voters must be registered and present all the same identification required of people who vote in person.

By Minnesota state statute, in order to be eligible as a mail-in precinct, the number of registered voters must be under 400 as of June 1 in an election year. While mail-in precincts will send out ballots automatically to registered voters, people can also request an absentee ballot be sent to them.

However, for people who want the voting experience, or maybe are concerned about their ballot arriving in time to be counted, they can hand deliver their ballots to the Auditor’s office, located in the Nobles County Government Center. People can also place their ballots in the drop box located at the 10th Street entrance to the government center, which is under 24-hour video surveillance.

While the process of mail-in ballots might seem straightforward, there’s a rigorous number of security checks to make sure everything runs as it should. The Auditor’s Office keeps updated lists of registered voters and what precincts they reside in, informed by township officers, post offices, DMV workers, and the like.

“We depend on people to help us keep our voter rolls clean,” Jacobs said, noting they also receive information about voters who have died. Another individual in the Auditor’s Office is responsible for checking with funeral homes and watching obituaries in and around the area to make sure ballots don’t get sent out after a person has died.

Additionally, when mail-in and absentee ballots come back, they’ll be matched against the pre-provided information from voters when they registered and must also be signed by a witness to help ensure voters are who they say. Ballot envelopes also come equipped with an individualized barcode, which matches an identical barcode at the auditor’s office and cannot be replicated.

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“There are lots of checks and balances in place,” said Roos. “We want our elections to be safe and secure. If you see or hear something that sounds like it's fraudulent around elections, you need to let the auditor-treasurer's office know, so that we can do an investigation.”

One particular concern they’ve heard more and more, though often not officially reported, is people claiming to have received multiple ballots. Oftentimes though, Roos and Jacobs explain, what people are really receiving is absentee ballot applications, sent out by third parties to encourage voter participation.

“It looks very official, and it usually even has our return address,” Jacobs said, which often leads people to believe they’re being sent fraudulent ballots. “And then we hear … ‘I got three ballots in the mail,’ but they never bother opening them up. So it's really important that they open up the information, open the envelope, and check.”

That being said, Jacobs warned, if a person attempted to vote twice, either by submitting, for instance, an absentee or mail-in ballot and then going to vote in person or trying to vote in multiple precincts, those attempts would be flagged in Minnesota’s centralized voter database.

“You can only vote once,” she stated, “and those who have tried to vote more than once are turned over to the county attorney and prosecuted.”

Equipment

As for the equipment that’s used during elections, Nobles County optimizes the ES&S DS200 to tabulate ballots. Prior to receiving any actual election ballots, all voting equipment used in Minnesota must be tested and certified, first by test labs accreditation, and then again by the Office of Minnesota Secretary of State.

“And before every election we, the local officials, test all equipment to be used in that election,” Roos explained. “That includes the assistant voting devices, which are all the Omni ballots, the tabulators, the DS200, and even our poll pads, which we just use for registration.”

Voting equipment is also tested within 14 days of the election during a public accuracy test, in which members of the public are welcome to come to learn about voting equipment and see it tested themselves, during the process where over 15,000 ballots will be tested. The Nobles County Government Center will hold its own public accuracy test at 3 p.m. Nov. 3 in room 209.

It’s also important to note that the voting tabulators used in Nobles County lack the ability to connect to the internet, amid rising concerns of hackable elections, and election results are transferred on secured drives to a computer used exclusively for the election, which, similarly, does not connect to the internet.

Early voting

While no ballots will be processed until within seven days of the Nov. 8 election, voters who want to cast their ballots early have the opportunity to do so by heading to the Auditor-Treasurer's office, where ballot booths are set up.

Already, Jacobs said her office has received more than 1,000 ballots, which will remain in their envelopes until they’re ready to be counted. With extended hours of operation, she’s anticipating more early votes, mail-in ballots, and absentee ballots to come in over the next week.

Throughout the remainder of this week, the County Auditor-Treasures office will be open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. On Saturday, voters will be able to come in between the hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the day before the election, doors will remain open until 5 p.m.

“We appreciate the patience of our citizens,” Jacobs said of everyone who comes into the office, “Bottom line is, we want everyone who is eligible to vote to have the opportunity to do so.”

NOTE: A previous version of this article stated that of Nobles County's 40 precincts, 20 are mail-in. The correct number of mail-in precincts is 21.

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Emma McNamee joined The Globe team in October 2021 as a reporter covering Crime & Courts, Politics, and the City beats. Born and raised in Duluth, Minn., McNamee left her hometown to attend school in Chicago at Columbia College. She graduated in 2021 with a degree in Multimedia Journalism, with a concentration in News & Feature Writing and a minor in Creative Writing.
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