BISMARCK — Morton County Auditor Dawn Rhone is looking forward to new election equipment.
"Thankfully we haven't had a lot of problems with ours as some counties have, but it's reassuring that we don't have to worry about the equipment at this point anymore," she said.
North Dakota lawmakers in their 2019 legislative session budgeted $8.2 million to meet $3 million in federal funds for the new election equipment statewide to replace 15-year-old machines.
The secretary of state's office this week began testing the new equipment, which includes 425 precinct tabulators, or ballot scanners, 425 assistive devices, for voters with physical difficulty in marking ballots, and 53 central count machines, for processing absentee and mail ballots.
But Rhone is most excited about new electronic poll books, which the state will select from a vendor and likely test in August, according to Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum. Rhone said the e-poll books will save election workers time at polling places in how they record voters of a precinct.
"It's going to be a big time-saver in many ways," Rhone said.
Morton County precincts haven't had the jamming or repair issues that other North Dakota counties have encountered with the aged ballot scanners, Rhone said, but for a wayward scanner in Glen Ullin years ago.
Donnell Preskey, a lobbyist for the North Dakota Association of Counties, surveyed county auditors during the recent legislative session and noted 27 ballot scanners that failed in 16 counties in the 2018 primary and general elections.
"That really showed us the data and the proof that we absolutely could not push this down the road any longer, that equipment was failing on Election Day and this was the No. 1 priority for the auditors in the state who run the local elections," Preskey said.
Silrum said the secretary of state's office had pressed for updated election equipment since the 2015 legislative session, but funding priorities weren't in its favor, especially during the deep budget cuts of 2017.
The new machines still use paper ballots, and voters won't notice much difference when the equipment debuts for the June 2020 primary election, Silrum said. He praised the paper ballot system for its permanent record of how people voted, while other states have gone electronic.
"North Dakota never went there because we value our paper," Silrum said.
Testing of the new equipment began Monday in a warehouse in Bismarck and is likely to wrap up later this month. The equipment will then be distributed to counties.
Burleigh County Auditor/Treasurer Kevin Glatt said he's anxiously awaiting the new equipment and training. Over the years, he's acquired other counties' unneeded equipment to "cannibalize" for spare parts and backups.
Glatt doesn't expect big changes for voters or election workers with the new equipment. Next year, the new machines will debut for the 40th election he has administered.
"Take note, get out and vote," Glatt said.