St. Paul, Minn. — Already this year, close to 90,000 new voters have registered for this year's elections. Add to that the thousands Minnesotans who have changed their names or addresses, and the total volume of registration cards almost doubles.
Dorothy McClung, the chief election official in Ramsey County, says the work load is intensified by the new Statewide Voter Registration System. McClung says at peak usage -- when workers from the state's 87 counties are online -- the network slows to a crawl and will knock users offline after they enter only three or four new voters.
"We received a box of voter registration cards last Friday -- probably about 5,000 or more cards. And when you're doing three at a time and get kicked off and have to start them over, three at a time is not very good," she said.
McClung says she's already asked her staff to begin working overtime and on weekends, taking advantage of off-peak hours to access the SVRS. That's adding thousands of dollars of extra costs and squeezing county resources, but McClung says she's committed to processing all cards received by October 12, the statewide cutoff for pre-registration. McClung says voters shouldn't worry about not being able to vote, but advises concerned Minnesotans to bring a valid ID to their polling places on election day just to be safe.
Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer says the complaints vary from county to county, with some officials reporting no serious obstacles. Kiffmeyer says slow response times aren't necessarily a fault of the state system. She says the county computer networks could be old or inefficient in some cases.
"It's easy to jump to the conclusion that it's the system... when, in fact, it also can be a situation of the county firewalls, county connectivity issues, bandwidth issues. And in every case we have worked with the counties, individual counties, to troubleshoot and work through those things with them," according to Kiffmeyer.
Election officials almost uniformly praise the system's potential, that is, if it performs smoothly. They believe its ease-of-use will be a significant improvement over the old central voter registry. But they've criticized Kiffmeyer for her decision to bring the new system online during a critical presidential election year.
Forty other states have received waivers to postpone the federally-mandated systems until after November. Kiffmeyer says Minnesota was far enough ahead of the curve not to require a waiver.
Beth Fraser of the Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action directed a survey of county staff that shows two-thirds of respondents encountered error messages or slow response times while using the new system. Fraser says it's not enough that the system will improve with more troubleshooting.
"It's great to hear that the counties think this is going to be a good system. But it needs to work now. There's not time to work out the bugs anymore. So it has to be fixed so that it stops kicking users off, timing them out, leading to lost data and frustration," Fraser said.
Tony Kielkucki, Kiffmeyer's elections deputy, says his office continues to work with counties to identify solutions. He drew a distinction between SVRS, which manages voter registration information, and the actual equipment that will record and tabulate votes on November 2.
"The SVRS system is not a ballot system. It's not a voting system. Minnesota will still vote in the way that they did in the last election. So when you walk into the polling place, the machines that you're going to use or the system that you're going to use to vote in Minnesota will be the same," he said.
Kielkucki says there's no reason to believe that Minnesota's vote count won't be accurate and timely. But the critics say if the SVRS fails, some citizens may not make it into the ballot booth at all.