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County clerk talks about election security
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County clerk talks about election security

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Election Security

St. Francois County Clerk Kevin Engler and Elections Deputy Clerk Jackie Jones with the machinery used in the last election.

As the nation sees ongoing accusations and lawsuits about vote fraud in the General Election, St. Francois County Clerk Kevin Engler recently explained the processes his office goes through to ensure proper vote security.

In Missouri, each county decides where the ballots are printed and what machinery and software to use. Engler admits that the voting system was more sophisticated than he thought when he took office.

“The two machines that are most important are the Poll Pad, which we use Knowink, which was developed here in Missouri by Scott Leiendecker, that was a St. Louis County election judge,” Engler said. “He thought there was a better way.

"It’s a very smooth way to make sure that everybody comes in and have their driver’s license or voting card scanned. It immediately pops up on the screen if they are eligible to vote, and it keeps track of who already voted. Very secure, very safe, everything stays locked in here.

“The second is the machine that literally reads and counts the ballots. The machine itself, Unisyn makes the hardware, Henry M. Adkins and Son Inc., of Clinton, Missouri, programs them. They have a proprietary software. We hire one of their people to come down here on Election Day in case any of the precincts have problems with the counting or irregularity. Not only does it count it, but we keep the paper ballots.”

Engler said that a lot of counties do not use paper ballots. “A lot of places produce a computer-generated paper after they come in. Ours are counted by machine that’s been tested, there is no outside software that you can come in and change the numbers. When we verify that, we randomly draw a precinct to make sure that the count is exact to what we show the paper count is. Every time we test all these things, there’s always Democrats and Republicans.”

Ten days before the election, Engler and his staff test every machine to make sure they are counting correctly.

“Adkins sends us a book of ballots that they know what they contain and they read them and it’s supposed to come out exactly,” he said. “It tests every voting scenario to make sure it's counting every vote. This thing tabulates, but anytime we can go in — where like in the spring, Bismarck tied — we can pull the paper ballots to make sure they exactly match. About 10 days after the election, every one of those machines are reexamined and tested by using a mystery deck of combinations that when they come out, they have to match. We do that every election. We test the hardware, we test the software and we use two companies that are in state, and we have somebody on site in case there are any problems.”

Obviously, there are problems that occur and the company representative has to work on it. Engler said that occasionally a machine gets jammed.

“This year we sent her out to three different locations,” he said. “Most of the time that happens at 5 a.m. That gives us an hour to get everything working.”

Programming any of the machines requires a bipartisan committee to observe. The scanners sit on a trashcan-type of container to store the scanned ballots as they are counted. When the empty container is attached to the scanner, the bipartisan committee verifies the container is empty before it is sealed. The machines have a special flash drive installed before use with a seal on them. The seal and flash drive are removed at the end of Election Day by the bipartisan supervisors. None of the machines are connected to the outside or to the internet in any way at any time.

The ballots are printed through Adkins, the same company that provides the software. To keep costs down, Engler’s office uses a rule of thumb on how many ballots to order.

“On an April election, we typically order 30-50% of registered voters, which is 3-4 times normal election turnout,” he said. “On national ones, we are 100% of what voters we have registered.”

Leftover, unused ballots are destroyed 30 days after the election. The used ballots are placed in storage for 22 months before being destroyed. The ballots are stored in boxes that are sealed and signed by a member of both political parties.

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Engler stressed that the place where there is the most risk of fraud is in the mail-in absentees. “They request it, we have to look at the signatures, there’s some interpretation — is this the right signature? — once they’re marked and they’re in this office, there’s no changing them. Once they’re put in front of the Democrats and Republicans, they can’t be changed or altered.”

For upcoming elections, Engler is looking at sending out a bipartisan team to nursing homes and hospitals where mail-in ballots are requested. The plan is to reduce potential fraud or error where incapacitated residents or patients could have their vote influenced or filled out by staffers or visitors. Sending out that many ballots to one location is something Engler is reluctant to do, especially to a residence.

“Once you get past two registered voters at that location, we’ve got a problem with multiple people, we wouldn’t just send 20 different ballots there,” he said.

Although Engler says there is possibility of fraud with mail-in ballots, it would still be difficult to do here on a high volume basis.

“You have to know the Social Security number, you have to be receiving their mail, you have to have the signature, you could do it for one or two maybe, but it would be difficult for any sizable amounts,” he said. “That’s in Missouri. In other states, they’re sending them out to everybody that’s on record, you’ve got hundreds of live ballots out there that you could have four different people that used to live in some apartment that’s been registered to vote in the last 10 years. Only one lives there now.”

Having outdated voter registrations on the rolls is also a problem for elections officials when mailing out ballots. Engler is meticulous about cleaning out the voter rolls to prevent that issue.

“We just purged over 600 about a year ago, because they hadn’t voted in two federal elections, nor had they responded to four different letters we sent them,” he said. “Those are the ones where potentially there’s fraud at.”

Elections Deputy Clerk Jackie Jones, a 14-year veteran of St. Francois County elections, went through the exhaustive process of counting mail-in absentee ballots.

“There are two ways that we get them where people send preprinted applications in or we send them out,” she said. “If we have to send them out, that’s even longer. When we get them, we check the name and address, their date of birth, their last four digits of their Social Security. We check to see if there’s an address change, we check to see what reason they have, we have to enter it into the system under the reason they stated.

“There is an outside mailer where the mailing address is to go to the voter. Inside that is a little smaller envelope that has the return address on the back. On the front of it is the same information as the application, but it’s their affidavit. It has to be notarized before they send it back.”

The ballot has to be signed on the outside for verification. The bipartisan committee verifies the signature to the voter rolls. Once the ballot is removed, no one knows who the voter was.

Engler noted, how a mail-in ballot returns has to be recorded. “If it comes in the mail, they record it. If they bring it in, we have to have a paper signed,” he said.

With so many absentee mail-ins during the Nov. 3 election, the absentee committee required two to three hours to verify the ballots. Once they were verified, it took 3 ½ hours to scan the verified ones through the machine.

Engler stressed that he wants to make sure the public knows that this is a secure process. He gave an example of a successful security check on Election Day.

“In this election, there was a guy up at Terre Du Lac that was here the day before,” he said. “He goes to vote on Election Day, the lady said that it showed he voted the day before. He said that was correct. ‘I told everybody that there was no way you could keep track of who had already voted. You proved me wrong’.”

Mark Marberry is a reporter for the Farmington Press and Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3629, or at mmarberry@farmingtonpressonline.com

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