Keeping track of voters and stray absentee ballots may have just become easier in parts of Minnesota, thanks to new neon-colored election technology awaiting poll-goers at the check-in table.
Starting with next week's primary election, polling places in much of Hennepin County are ditching paper rosters for bright green tablets to check in and register voters, as well as log absentee ballots.
Hennepin County voters on Tuesday will find electronic poll book stations just about everywhere in the county save Minneapolis, which will introduce e-poll books next year.
Election officials hope the check-in gadgets cut line times and leave less room for error in voter data.
"It's an important step for us to modernize the election process," said Ginny Gelms, Hennepin County elections manager. "It'll bring that process into the 21st century."
Each e-poll book unit comes with an iPad, lime green stand, battery pack and mini printer. The technology is distinct from the state's paper-ballot system, which uses a separate electronic counting machine.
The county paid $1.8 million to KNOWiNK, a Missouri-based company, for the e-poll book hardware, with the program software costing an additional $440,000.
Election officials anticipate the gadgets will last about six years, Gelms said.
Hennepin County is one of only two counties in Minnesota to use the technology, joining Crow Wing County in its partial rollout of the e-poll book program.
The state first established legislative guidelines for using e-poll books in 2013 after forming a task force on election technology.
While choosing between vendors, Hennepin County looked to cities like Minnetonka for input, which has been testing out various versions of e-poll books since 2009.
Hiccups over the years related to e-poll books have mostly been hardware-related, said David Maeda, Minnetonka city clerk. With some systems, laptops and clunky printers created a tangle of cords at check-in stations — clutter largely eliminated with the tablets and wireless printers, he said.
The technology isn't new to the election circuit, with counties in 32 states already using e-poll books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"This is one of the most desired technology updates in elections across the country," Gelms said.
The e-poll books also log absentee ballots, making it easier for election judges to determine if a person at the polls has already voted.
Aside from speedier check-ins, election officials say the technology will save time after election days wrap up, especially when the county transfers its voter data to the state's voter registration database.
"It would take temporary workers months after the election to manually key in that information," Gelms said. "Now, it's done almost instantaneously."
To prep election judges to use the new technology, cities scheduled an extra training session.
"There was still a lot of work to get the e-poll books ready," said Sandy Engdahl, Plymouth city clerk.
During Plymouth's e-poll book training session, election judges like Janet Campbell walked through different scenarios that may occur on election day and learned how to navigate registration and check in on the iPad.
"There are some judges without the experience with technology that are a little leery of it, but they're getting good training," said Campbell, who has worked as an election judge for 30 years.
"It's nice that it's the primary, and it will give us time to get used to the iPads before the general election," she said.
Most election judges, Campbell added, were excited to ditch the bulky three-ring binders that poll workers typically leaf through to find voter names.
Not that the binders are going away completely. While technology glitches are rare, Gelms said, there's an e-poll book backup plan for each precinct. Election officials plan to have paper rosters and registration forms on hand in every polling place — just in case.
Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751