The recount of the Minnesota Senate race could hinge on optical ballot scanners, machines with a history of errors that were put into place by former Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer in 2006. Minnesota’s ballot scanning machines, manufactured by Election Systems & Software (ES&S), were the same machines that a Michigan election official discovered last week don’t always tabulate ballots correctly. The model that caused the problems in Michigan were the same used mainly in Minneapolis and the surrounding suburbs.
Currently, Sen. Norm Coleman leads DFLer Al Franken by a scant margin, currently 590 votes out of more than 2.4 million cast. There’s been some speculation that potentially faulty optical scanners could have significantly miscounted votes in precincts favorable to Franken.
In 2006, Minnesota went to a complete system of optical ballot scanning to tabulate votes. According to the Secretary of State’s office, Diebold Accuvote OS machines are used in St. Paul and the outer suburbs; ES&S Models 150, 315 and 550 are used in rural townships; ES&S Model 115 is used in Duluth and St. Louis County; and in Minneapolis and the inner suburbs, ES&S Model 100 is used.
Model 100 came under fire last week in Michigan when Ruth Johnson, Oakland County Clerk/Register of Deeds, “reported inconsistent vote totals during their logic and accuracy testing” in the Model 100 machines. When the same ballots were scanned multiple times, the machines recorded them differently. Read Jackson’s letter to election authorities regarding the faulty counting (pdf).
ES&S says the errors were due to dust blocking the sensors. The Election Assistance Commission released this response to Jackson’s concerns. “ES&S determined that the primary issue [that caused the machines to formulate incorrect vote counts] was dust and debris build-up on the sensors inside the M-100. This has impacted the Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) settings for the two Contact Image Sensors (CIS).”
The machines must be taken apart to be cleaned, but that process invalidates the warranty on the machine. The Secretary of State’s office did not immediately return a request for information on Minnesota’s process for cleaning the machines or if new machines have been purchased in Minnesota since 2006.
The Minnesota Independent’s Chris Steller said in his precinct, near the University of Minnesota, election officials went through two malfunctioning scanning machines on Election Day before the third one functioned properly.
Concerns over ES&S machines are not new. Indiana successfully sued ES&S in 2006 for $750,000 after machines failed during the primary in that state. In 1998, Hawaii successfully sued ES&S for $280,000 when machines failed to properly record 41,000 votes due to “lens occlusion.” In fact, dozens of states (pdf) have reported sporadic problems with ES&S optical ballot scanners.
Despite those concerns, a spokesman for the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office says the machines were tested and performed accurately. Those same machines were used in the September primaries which resulted in a recount of the Supreme Court race. That recount, much smaller than the Senate recount will be (110,000 votes versus 2.7 million votes), reported no irregularities and only 7 votes were switched based on improperly marked ballots.