New Technologies Transforming U.S. Elections Systems
Ginny Gelms, elections manager in Hennepin County, Minnesota, talks to media in advance of the Nov 8 election
More than at any time in our country's history, technology played a key role at every stage of the 2016 presidential election—from conducting surveys and polls to increasing voter turnout and processing registrations, to counting ballots and submitting totals. This increased reliance on technology led some to assert that the outcome of the November 8 election could be rigged or voting machines hacked, even as officials disputed those claims.
But doubts over the system's integrity were laid to rest on Election Day, when balloting nationwide took place with few, if any, glitches. This includes Minnesota, where voter turnout is always among the highest in the nation (about 75 percent this time around), and Hennepin County, the state's largest.
Ginny Gelms, Hennepin County's elections manager (at right in the photo, holding a pre-election news conference), is pursuing her Certificate in Election Administration at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. We asked her for some insights into how her office managed the November 8 election, and how the Certificate in Election Administration program is informing her work.
What were the main challenges facing Hennepin County in this year’s election?
There were two big issues in Hennepin County’s election from my office’s perspective.
The first was the historic number of absentee voters—people who decided to vote early. That came about because of a number of factors, but we were able to handle that situation well. We’ve been planning for that scenario for several years. By and large, the increased workload and the logistical challenges were met very well.
Election Day itself was relatively smooth. We had similar voter turnout this year compared to past presidential election years (90 percent turnout in Hennepin County). But the higher number of early voters helped cut down a bit on the wait times at the polls on Election Day.
The other big issue was our implementation of electronic poll books in more than half of our precincts. Our election judges used iPads instead of paper roster books to check in voters, and that also contributed to the relatively smooth day at the polls. We used the iPads in all of our precincts outside the city of Minneapolis. We plan to begin using that system in Minneapolis in the city’s next election in spring 2017.
We have used the electronic poll books during the primary, and also used them in several pilot projects over the past several years. But this was the biggest test of them, and they worked very well.
What’s the advantage of using electronic poll books?
From the voter’s perspective, it helps the lines move faster. Each voter signs an individual piece of paper instead of signing in the poll book, which also protects voter privacy.
For election judges, it’s easier and faster to look up individual voters. It also simplifies the most challenging task of election judges, which is to register voters on Election Day. The device walks them through each step of the process, and makes it an error-proof process.
From the election administrator’s perspective, the electronic poll books dramatically simplify the post-election reporting function. After the election, we need to enter our county’s data into the statewide voter system. Using the paper-based poll books, it takes a couple dozen temporary staff people two months or more to accomplish that task. But with the iPads, we capture that voting information electronically and can just transfer those data files to the Minnesota Secretary of State in just a few minutes. We also have that data available more quickly for people who request it, and it is more accurate since we’re not relying on stacks of paper forms.
Does the use of electronic poll books raise any new security concerns?
No. All the systems we use have a high level of security in place, and there are specific security requirements that we need to follow when we use this type of system. The electronic poll books are not connected to the voting system. They do contain voter data but there are a lot of ways to keep that data secure. For example, if one of the iPads would be stolen, we can wipe the data stored on it.
Why did you decide to pursue the Certificate in Election Administration?
There are several reasons. First, it’s the only program of its kind in the country. There’s one other program that has some professional education component. But the Humphrey School’s program is the only graduate certificate credentialed program. And since I can participate online, it can easily fit it into my life.
Second, I’m a mid-career professional, but I thought it was important to go through it for my own professional development and also for my staff.
Third, I support the idea of continued professionalization of election administration, because the job of an election administrator has become more technical and demanding, compared to even 15 years ago. It’s important that administrators around the country do what we can to promote professionalization of the people who do this for a living.
What have you learned from the program so far that is informing your work in Hennepin County?
A lot of the things I’ve been learning are affecting my thinking on a more general scale. In terms of immediate, concrete things, not so much, because we plan so far in advance when we make changes to the voting system.
One example of my change in thinking is this: In one class, we looked at the differences in running elections in jurisdictions of different sizes. Having that laid out helped reveal to me why, when we ask for something at the Legislature, we often meet resistance; it’s because we are one voice in the entire state. We’re the largest county. And there are not just quantitative but qualitative differences in how we do things, compared to smaller counties. This helped me to better tell my story when it comes to talking to legislators, policy makers, and other officials.
One of the great benefits of the program has been networking with people who work in other states. Typically, we don’t have many opportunities to do that. A couple of my classmates are from California and Washington State, and learning from them about how things work there, and how they have met different challenges, has been an important piece for me. Knowing somebody who runs elections entirely by mail is an important perspective to have as we move forward with more absentee voting, for example.
I also think there are benefits to be had for people to go through the Certificate in Election Administration program at any time of their career. The way it is structured is that it can provide benefits to elections officials who are new to the profession or who are already established in their careers. I like having that mix in my cohort.