Faster, more reliable voting machines are arriving just in time to help handle an expansion of absentee voting in Minnesota and a high-profile test of Minneapolis’ ranked-choice voting in this fall’s mayoral election.

Six of the seven metro-area counties are spending millions to replace hundreds of 13-year-old optical-scan ballot-counting machines, taking advantage of federal grants and the recent certification of new voting technology.

Ballots cast by Minneapolis residents will be fed into the machines during the mayoral election in November, which will be the most high-profile test yet of the city’s system that allows voters to pick a first, second and third choice. The new equipment will eliminate the hand counting that took 15 days in 2009.

Voters in the Bloomington, St. Louis Park and Minnetonka City Council primaries in August will be first to use the machines.

The new machines also will bring fast central counting capacity for mailed-in ballots. With the Legislature’s authorization of “no excuse” absentee voting starting next year, some officials believe that there could be a 50 percent increase in absentee ballots.

Designed to stay free of jams, the fast central counters will help keep the election on pace, said Virginia Gelms, acting manager of the Hennepin County election division. “Ultimately, that leads to results available earlier on election night.”

Hennepin County — which spent $4.1 million for 550 precinct counters and four central counters — was first to buy, followed by Anoka County, which spent $1.5 million for 140 precinct ballot counters and one central counter. Anoka County will use them in the Anoka-Hennepin School District election this fall, said elections manager Cindy Reichert.

Ramsey, Washington, Dakota and Scott counties are in the process of making purchases, with plans to put the machines into use next year. Carver is the only metro-area county with no plans to buy new machines.

Spending the money to update voting equipment is “good government,’’ said Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a DFLer.

In precinct polling places, the new machines will read and count paper ballots like the old ones do, but a 12-inch display screen will alert voters instantly if a ballot error is made and give instructions for correcting it.

Preparing for early voting

The old counting machines have been reliable and accurate but are increasingly difficult to keep in service and must be hand-fed thousands of absentee ballots one at a time during the election crunch ““for days at time,” said Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky, who looks forward to a central counter that will chomp through thousands of mailed ballots in a few hours.

The national trend is toward early voting, and in Minnesota so far the early option is absentee balloting, he said. With the new “no excuse” law, “We now have a way for fairly large-scale voting by absentees,” he said. Before, voters had to have a recognized excuse — illness or an out-of-town trip, for example. Under the new law, anybody may vote absentee for any reason.

As an election approaches, Ramsey County often gets 1,000 or more ballots per day, Mansky said. “We want to be sure our new voting system will accommodate a large number of ballots coming by mail.”

Hennepin County received about 70,000 absentee ballots in the last election, Gelms said.

The new machines are expected to save Minneapolis significant time and money by generating a report showing the number of ballots each candidate received as the first, second and third choice.

“It can tell you this is how all of the ballots were marked and the city can do the math” to declare the winner, she said. “It cuts out the necessity of having that full hand count the city had to do in 2009.”

Unlike the old optical-scan machines, which simply scanned the ballot to count the marks, the new digital-scan technology “makes a digital image of the ballot, then looks for darkened pixels in the vote target area,” she said. “If enough darkened pixels are detected, the machine registers the vote.’’

The county has the option to program the machines to keep the images for later use. “One use of these ballot images could be counting write-in votes, rather than going back through and using the physical ballots for that,’’ Gelms said.

How those images might be used, whether they would be open to public view and whether they could prove useful in recounts are all legal questions that will have to be addressed, Gelms said. While the topic is up for discussion, Hennepin County has decided not to collect images in the August primaries.