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North Dakota officials are confident the November election is secure. Here’s how votes will be counted

State Auditor Josh Gallion, a Republican, determined that North Dakota’s elections systems are “incredibly secure” following an independent review performed earlier this year. 

A drawing shows hands casting ballots into a box
Troy Becker / The Forum
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BISMARCK — Despite widespread national concern about election integrity, North Dakotans should have full confidence in the results of the state’s political contests, officials say.

The systems and rules in place are designed to count every vote and reject every fraudulent attempt to interfere with the election process, said North Dakota Elections Director Brian Newby.

State Auditor Josh Gallion determined that North Dakota’s election systems are “incredibly secure” following an independent review performed earlier this year.

“For the North Dakota election system to be exploited, unprecedented collusion would have to occur. It is exceptionally unlikely that the results of an election in North Dakota would be fraudulently influenced,” said a news release from the Republican auditor.

Former President Donald Trump has led a movement to undermine American elections based on unsupported claims that mass voter fraud “rigged” the 2020 presidential election. Joe Biden, a Democrat, won the race, receiving 74 more Electoral College votes than Trump, a Republican.

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A segment of North Dakota’s population believes the misinformation promoted by Trump, including Charles Tuttle, an independent candidate for secretary of state in the Nov. 8 general election. His opponents, Republican Michael Howe and Democrat Jeffrey Powell, agree Biden won a fair election.

The secretary of state's office oversees elections in North Dakota.

Howe and Powell believe the state’s elections are well run, but they say more voter education should be done to inspire faith in democratic systems.

North Dakota officials have tried to demonstrate the complex mechanisms that shield state and local elections from fraud, including by inviting the public to examine the security of voting machines prior to Election Day.

Forum News Service spoke with top state officials to break down each step of the election process.

How mail-in voting works in North Dakota

North Dakotans can vote by mail or in person at a polling place. Both ways require election workers to verify voters’ identities.

To vote by mail, adults residents must fill out an application with their name, state ID number, birth date and address. Once the completed application is signed and returned by mail, fax or hand delivery to the county auditor, a ballot will be mailed to the voter.

Cross-referencing the information provided on the application with personal data from a central voter file is the first line of defense against fraudulent mail-in voting, Newby said. If the personal information doesn’t match up, the county auditor would deny the application.

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North Dakota’s notable lack of voter registration creates the need for a central voter file, which is based on state Department of Transportation records.

Non-residents who apply for a mail-in ballot in North Dakota wouldn’t be able to get one because county election officials would see they don’t have a state ID number, Newby noted.

Residents are required to sign the envelope containing their ballot before sending it back to the county auditor.

The signatures on the mail-in application and the returned ballot are “a de facto method of identification,” and county auditors and the local canvassing board won’t count the ballots if the signatures don’t match, Newby said.

Voters would receive a notice from the county if their signatures don’t match, giving them a chance to go into the office in person to prove their identity, he noted.

County auditors update an electronic pollbook when they receive mail-in ballots, which prevents residents from voting more than once.

Electronic pollbooks, which are also used to check voters in at physical voting locations, were first used in North Dakota during the 2020 elections. The equipment, purchased from St. Louis-based KNOWiNK with the state Legislature’s approval, allows for greater efficiency and precision in tracking how and where people are casting ballots, Newby said.

County election workers can’t open mail-in ballots to begin counting until the Friday before Election Day.

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Mail-in ballots are tabulated using a high-speed scanner called a DS450, which is manufactured by Omaha-based Election Systems & Software.

The machines, which undergo several accuracy tests, can tabulate up to 100 ballots per batch, Newby said. Republican and Democratic election judges, usually appointed by local party leaders, observe the tabulation of mail-in ballots.

The tabulation machines are not connected to the internet and do not contain an internet modem. Only county employees have access to the machines prior to Election Day, and county auditors must share with the secretary of state’s office a “physical safety plan” for voting machines prior to the election, Newby said.

He said there is no history of mass voter fraud tied to mail-in ballots in North Dakota. Mail-in voting has been available to eligible residents since 2005.

How in-person voting works

When North Dakotans arrive at their local polling place, election workers will check them in by scanning their IDs into the electronic pollbook. This step ensures a voter cannot cast ballots at more than one polling station.

Voters have the choice to fill out ballots by hand or with the help of a ballot-marking machine. The ExpressVote machine, also made by Election Systems & Software, is intended for people with disabilities, but anyone can use them.

The device, which is not connected to the internet, produces an electronically marked paper ballot based on the voter’s selections.

Newby noted that every ballot cast in person or by mail must be on paper.

A man with glasses resting on his forehead gestures in front of a room full of people.
Cass County Election Administrator Murray Nash talks to election judges, inspectors and clerks on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, at Fargo's Public Safety Building.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

Ballots filled out at polling places will be fed one-by-one into a tabulation machine, Election Systems & Software’s DS200, which is not connected to the internet. The machines undergo accuracy tests before and after the election to ensure they are operating correctly.

All of the voting machines used in North Dakota have been certified by independent laboratories and the secretary of state’s office, Newby noted.

Newby said he is 100% confident in the voting machines, noting recent recounts in tight races have consistently backed up the results reported by the machines.

To learn more about voting machines, read the following document from the secretary of state’s website describing election systems.

How election results are generated

After the polls close on Election Day, paper ballots and an encrypted flash drive containing vote totals for each polling place are hand-delivered to county auditors, who already have a separate flash drive with mail-in results.

The county auditors copy the results from the flash drives into a “hardened” computer that cannot be connected to the internet. The computer aggregates the votes cast by mail and at each polling place into the “unofficial” results for the county across each race on the ballot.

The results are then transferred to a separate computer using a different single-use flash drive to report to the state’s election database. Those are the results that show up on the secretary of state’s website for all 53 counties on the night of the election.

Mail-in votes that arrive after the election are counted only if they are postmarked prior to the day of the election.

After Election Day, the secretary of state’s office audits voting machines from a randomly selected precinct in each county to ensure they ran with complete accuracy.

In very close races, county officials may perform manual or machine-assisted recounts. Voter errors in filling out ballots, such as crossing out and overwriting, are usually responsible for the rare instances where votes are changed from one candidate to another, Newby said.

County canvassing boards will meet to certify the election results 13 days after the election. The panels in each county must include the county auditor, county recorder, a leading county commissioner and local representatives of the two major political parties.

The state canvassing board must meet no more than 17 days after an election to certify the results of statewide races. The state board includes the secretary of state, state treasurer, clerk of the North Dakota Supreme Court and representatives of the Republican and Democratic-NPL parties.

Once the boards certify the results, they are considered official.

For more information about voting, go to vote.nd.gov.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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