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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

County orders elections re-training for Tower clerk

Investigation reveals multiple failures stemming from Aug. 14 primary

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 8/29/18

TOWER— St. Louis County officials are requiring that Tower City Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith undergo elections re-training in Duluth, at city expense, after a county investigation revealed a host of …

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County orders elections re-training for Tower clerk

Investigation reveals multiple failures stemming from Aug. 14 primary


TOWER— St. Louis County officials are requiring that Tower City Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith undergo elections re-training in Duluth, at city expense, after a county investigation revealed a host of significant errors, violations of state law, and failures to follow election procedures during the Aug. 14 primary election here.

“The additional training is necessary due to the severity and number of issues identified during the investigation,” wrote St. Louis County Deputy Auditor Phil Chapman, who supervises elections for the county.

Those errors and failures go well beyond providing erroneous ballots to 25 voters in the city, as the Timberjay has previously reported. The election issues are detailed in an Aug. 24 letter to city officials in Tower along with the Minnesota Secretary of State.

Among the most serious findings was that Keith, on Aug. 7, had certified that the city’s pre-election voting machine testing had been completed accurately and consistent with the pre-determined results, when, in fact, the testing had not been completed properly, as required by state law. Deputy Clerk Terri Joki-Martin and Josh Villebrun also attested to the completion of the testing.

County officials were able to determine that the testing had not been done in the manner required. “After review of the test materials, the public accuracy tape did not agree with the predetermined results,” writes Chapman. “In fact, it appears the test was incomplete because eleven ballots for each precinct were not marked using the AutoMark machine,” Chapman continued. According to the investigation, Chapman said it appears that the blank ballots that were supposed to be used for testing were, instead, handed out to voters on election day.

At the same time, Chapman noted that election officials in Tower conducted what partial testing they did do on a back-up disk, rather than the primary disk that election officials are supposed to use for the election.

According to Chapman, election officials must test the actual equipment and software disks that will be used on election day. The back-up disks are only provided for use in the event that the primary disk were to fail on election day.

Chapman also cited major errors in the voting tabulations provided to the county by Keith after the Aug. 14 primary.

The process for elections is designed to ensure accountability in order to prevent errors or fraud. In order to do that, election officials must account for each ballot that they receive from the county and the numbers must add up at the end of the day.

On the summary report provided by Keith to county officials, it claims 370 total ballots were provided to the city by the county. “We’re not sure where they came up with that,” Chapman said during an interview this week with the Timberjay. “We recorded 150 precinct one ballots.” The county also provided 50 ballots for precinct two, which should have totaled 200. The other ballots that the county provided were for testing purposes only.

Keith also listed eight absentee ballots on the summary sheet, while Chapman said it appears there were actually 25.

Perhaps the most glaring error was the discrepancy between the number of voters reported by election judges and the number of ballots reported in the ballot box at the end of the day. Based on signatures, a total of 131 city residents turned out to the polls on Aug. 14. According to Chapman, there should be the same number of ballots in the ballot box, yet Keith reported 345.

At the same time, Keith failed to submit any summary information for precinct two, as required by state statute.

According to Chapman, Keith also mishandled absentee ballots, by mixing them into the ballot box “due to confidentiality concerns that the City Clerk had.” Yet Chapman notes that state law “requires that absentee and polling place vote totals be reported separately.”

City officials also mishandled the ballots and other election materials in the wake of the voting. “When election supplies were returned [to the county], all voted ballots were in clear unsealed bags and not in sealed envelopes signed by election judges as required.”

Keith also sent all three summary envelopes back to St. Louis County even though election officials are trained and reminded that one of the three envelopes is supposed to be retained by the local election administrator so they can answer questions, and also serve as a back-up in case the other ballots are damaged in transit to county offices.

While Chapman said the occasional error or irregularity isn’t that uncommon among the 172 precincts and 75 unorganized territories overseen by the county, he said the number and scale of mistakes in the recent Tower election was extraordinary. “I’ll be honest, I don’t recall seeing this many issues before,” he said. And the problems may not have been limited to the recent primary election. “The investigation focused on the recent state and federal primary election; however, the auditor’s office has been made aware of citizen concerns relating to previous elections, said Chapman”

Keith, at a special council meeting this past Thursday, attempted to put the onus on St. Louis County for failing to provide a “packing slip” that detailed all of the materials. Chapman said given the large number of precincts they serve for each election, producing a packing slip for each one would be a major undertaking that would serve little purpose. He noted that the election day ballots come sealed in plastic and both the number of ballots and the precinct are clearly labeled.

Keith had also suggested earlier that the county had provided loose ballots along with the sealed ones. Chapman said the “loose” ballots are clipped together with a large black clip and are clearly labeled to be used for testing. It was, apparently, because city officials failed to conduct the required testing with blank ballots that so many were left over on election day.

“It’s frustrating to me,” said Chapman. “We cover all this in clerk training. It’s really unacceptable that this many errors could happen.” While the county supervises elections, Chapman said there is no question about which level of government is charged with ensuring that local elections are run properly. “Ultimately, it’s the city’s responsibility,” he said.

According to Chapman’s letter, the city of Tower will be expected to reimburse the county for the cost of the one-on-one training that Chapman and other county officials will provide to Keith and other election staff on Sept. 13.