In Stearns County, voting equipment needs an estimated $1.3 million overhaul. In Morrison County, the improvement need ranges between $400,000 and $1 million. And in Lincoln County, along the South Dakota border, where they aren’t sure how much the upgrades would cost but need to purchase equipment by 2020, they can’t buy new technology without some outside support.
Tabulators, assistive voting devices and electronic poll books throughout Minnesota are nearing the ends of their lifespan. After the federal government purchased new voting equipment for everyone following the 2000 election through the Help America Vote Act, equipment necessary for a basic civic engagement is rapidly deteriorating.
Predominantly in Greater Minnesota, upgrades will cost local governments tasked with purchasing the equipment a combined $28 million, according to Secretary of State Steve Simon. A recent survey of 75 counties by the Minnesota Association of County Officers shows these local governments will spend anywhere from $50,000 to $1.3 million in the next four years to improve their equipment.
But, since there’s no indication that the federal government will again foot the bill, many local governments need help.
Sponsored by Rep. Tim O'Driscoll (R-Sartell), HF1697 would establish a $14 million matching grant program for local governments hoping to buy new voting equipment. Under the bill, the state would fund up to half of the cost for replacing old gear and the secretary of state’s office would be required to report the grants to the Legislature.
The House State Government Finance Committee laid the bill over on Thursday for possible omnibus bill inclusion. It has no Senate companion.
“At the county level, we’ve discussed the cost of new voting equipment for years, but with the recession and wanting to keep the tax increases to a minimum, and our other immediate needs, we simply cannot find room in the budget,” Stearns County Commissioner Jeff Megern said.
“Minnesota finds itself in kind of a quandary where a lot of the election equipment is all of the same age, all of the same vintage, and all experiencing the same kind of deterioration over time,” O’Driscoll said. Some local governments are even turning to eBay, O’Driscoll said, to find replacement parts for the decade-old equipment.
“This really is a big deal,” Simon said. “It sounds like one of those technical, dry issues, you know, elections equipment. But almost everyone I talk to around the state, in various counties and cities, they bring this up. It’s a big deal.”
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