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Stutsman County officials hold public testing of voting machines

Stutsman County held a public test of the electronic voting machines on Monday, Oct. 17.

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Josh Smaage, director of the information technology for Stutsman County, talks about how the electronic voting machines work.
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun
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JAMESTOWN – Stutsman County officials made sure the electronic voting machines worked correctly and accurately ahead of early voting from Oct. 31 through Nov. 4 and Election Day on Nov. 8.

Stutsman County did in-house testing of the electronic voting machines from Election Systems & Software Friday, Oct. 14, and held a public test on Monday, Oct. 17.

“We just want to make sure that everything counts right,” said Josh Smaage, director of information technology for Stutsman County.

Smaage said the testing went well and no issues came up with any of the electronic voting machines.

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A team of Stutsman County employees runs tests on the voting machines.
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

Stutsman County is required to hold a public testing event of the electronic voting machines, said Jessica Alonge, Stutsman County auditor/chief operating officer. She said the in-house test was held to ensure the machines were running accurately.

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The Stutsman County Commission met Tuesday, June 7.

“We have to upload all of our results after Monday to the state system, so the (North Dakota) Secretary of State’s Office is aware that everything ran correctly,” she said. “We follow everything by (North Dakota) Century Code. Everything that the Secretary of State’s Office provides us we follow to a T.”

Stutsman County begins testing the electronic voting machines a few weeks before early voting begins, Smaage said. He said the public test was the final one.

“For absentee (voting), they don’t get opened up until Election Day,” he said, “but for early voting, we have to set those machines up so people can put their actual ballot into the machines.”

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Stutsman County owns a few of these hi-tech and secure ballot tablators used during elections.
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

During the in-house and public testing of the machines, county employees go through a series of logic and accuracy checklists that include:

  • ensuring the date and time are correct. 
  • verifying machines sit at zero votes and ballots.
  • testing the multi-sheet sensor on the tabulators to account for all various aspects of voting including undervoting, overvoting, crossing party lines, write-ins and blank ballots. 
  • verifying the totals counted by the machines are correct. 

Smaage said Election Systems & Software did some maintenance of the machines in late January. Maintenance includes firmware updates, calibration of touchscreens for assistive voting devices such as ExpressVote, and checking the moving parts and rollers of the larger tabulator.

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County officials place sample ballots in the counting machine to test for accuracy.
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

Stutsman County begins its tests by verifying that there are zero votes/ballots cast on the electronic voting machines, Smaage said. He said “zero” tapes are printed and stored.

Once the machines are verified at zero ballots with no tallied votes, the county begins entering test ballots in four possible orientations – top-bottom, bottom-top, backside top-bottom and backside bottom-top.

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The ballot counters are quite hi-tech and tamper proof.
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

Smaage said everything that is done on the machines is logged.

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“Every button press is logged on and it’s all saved not only on the drive but it’s also printed out too,” he said.

The multi-sheet sensor of the DS200 tabulators is tested by having county employees insert two ballots stacked together. Smaage said both ballots will be rejected if the machine is operating correctly.

The county uses a “test deck,” or a combination of ballots. These ballots account for different aspects of voting including undervotes, overvotes, write-ins and even completely blank ballots. Smaage said the test deck consisted of more than 400 ballots.

“We put all of those in each of the machines, and hopefully at the end of the day our numbers match what the programming company has provided us for what numbers for each contest are,” he said. “We put every single ballot in each machine and by the end of the day all of the numbers should match up.”

After the test ballots are run through each machine that will be used for the general election and early voting, results are printed on a receipt and county employees verify the totals counted by the machines match the results on the receipt.

The tabulators that are used on Election Day and for early voting are capable of reading and accepting any of the ballot styles, Smaage said. He said the voting machine that will be in Medina is only programmed for that specific precinct – 472910.

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A tally sheet keeps track of the votes from the ballots and will assist with counting accuracy.
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

“This is the reason why residents in the county outside of that precinct cannot vote at that location,” he said. “Residents in 472910 do, however, have the option of voting either at the Medina location or at the Jamestown Civic Center on Election Day.”

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After the public equipment test is held, the machines are zeroed out and all votes and ballots are wiped out. Then they are locked and sealed until they are ready for deployment for absentee and early voting and on Election Day.

Election Day

After the public tests are done, seals with unique numbers are placed on the covers of all of the DS200 electronic voting machines. On Election Day, Smaage said inspectors verify the seals are still intact, have not been tampered with and the serial numbers are correct before opening the covers of the machines.

The inspectors include at least one Republican and one Democrat.

The machines also have specific keys to open the covers.

“Once you have it opened you still need the key again to get into the compartment, open up where actually the USB drives are,” he said. “That’s where every ballot that goes through gets image scanned input on the drive."

For the upload of election results, the county uses single-use USB flash drives to transfer results between its "hardened" standalone elections computer to its laptop that is only used for elections. He said certain functions, features or hardware present in a system are disabled on the standalone computer.

“This does include completely disabling the network adapter,” Smaage said. “You can’t just take a cable, plug it in and get out to the internet.”

He said the standalone elections computer does not have a wireless network card in it as well. The computer chassis also has a seal on it.

Each tabulator has a flash drive that is loaded into the standalone computer and the results are transferred into the Election Systems & Software’s software, he said.

“Once all media sticks are finished being loaded, we have single-use USB drives that we plug into the standalone PC,” he said. “All results are copied over to this drive and then that drive is brought over to a laptop which we use exclusively for elections, which has secure, encrypted VPN access, and those results are then finally uploaded to the state. Once that is done the single-use drive is now obsolete, and those drives will never be used again, nor will they ever get plugged back into the hardened, standalone PC.”

The only items connected to the internet are the county’s electronic Poll Pads, which are the iPads that are seen when visiting the clerks table on Election Day. Smaage said the iPads run a specialized application that contains a connection to a database of voters across the state

When voters hand clerks a form of ID, they scan it and verify the information in the county’s database matches the ID. Smaage said all Poll Pads are connected to each other with secure routers but have no connection to any of the electronic voting machines.

“The reason they have access to the internet is for communication not only within a county at all of our polling locations but for communication across the entire state,” he said. “This allows real-time communication between all of these Poll Pads across the state. If an individual was to try and vote at polling location A and then drive a few miles over to polling location B in their county, they will already be marked in the system as having voted.”

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Several electronic Poll Pads will be used by clerks at the voting polls.
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

Smaage said ballots are not tied to an individual and are only unique when they are precinct specific. When voters get checked in at the clerks table, they receive a paper receipt that shows the correct ballot style they should get.

“Once they visit the judges table to get their ballot, there is no way in ever tying that particular ballot back to an individual,” he said. “We do not have the capability to ever search for John Doe and see how or who they voted for. We do keep a voting history for every individual, but the only item we’ll ever know is if that John Doe did or did not vote in a particular election.”

On the touchscreen and display, voters will see the number of ballots inserted in each machine that day and how many total ballots each tabulator has received over the course of its life on Election Day or during early voting.

Masaki Ova joined The Jamestown Sun in August 2021 as a reporter. He grew up on a farm near Pingree, N.D. He majored in communications at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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