Hennepin County will computerize absentee ballot distribution

A computer system will soon be creating and mailing absentee ballots to the tens of thousands of Hennepin County voters who request them.

The County Board approved a $1.6 million, five-year contract Tuesday with BlueCrest for an absentee ballot software and mailing system. It should be up and running by late fall, in time for the Nov. 5 election.

Ginny Gelms, director of elections for Hennepin County, said her office expects to mail out 24,000 primary ballots and 110,000 general election ballots this year to residents who request to vote absentee.

Typically, that means elections workers have to handpick the proper ballot and other materials that are sent to voters. Then they stuff envelopes and mass-mail thousands of ballots before absentee voting starts. For this year’s general election, absentee voting begins Sept. 20.

“This equipment automates that whole process,” Gelms said. “It makes it more efficient and less error-prone.”

Gelms added that moving to the BlueCrest system will not impact election security — all existing safeguards remain in place.

“The BlueCrest system changes nothing about how ballots or voters are verified and has no effect on election integrity protocols or security measures,” she wrote in an email.

It should also help reduce waste. Elections workers will no longer have to sort through 400 or more different ballot versions for various voters, depending on where they live.

“This system prints ballots on demand,” Gelms said. She estimates the automated system will save the county about $630,000 over the next four years.

It might also boost turnout as more voters chose to cast ballots by mail.

Last year, the Minnesota Legislature updated absentee voting rules so residents can sign up to permanently receive a mail-in ballot for all elections. More than 10,000 Hennepin County residents have already signed up and more of the county’s roughly 790,000 registered voters are expected to use the option.

“These folks will be mailed ballots that, maybe in the past, they wouldn’t have filled out the application to get that ballot mailed to them,” Gelms said.

Election officials requested bids for automating the county’s absentee ballot system last May. BlueCrest was the only bidder and was picked after a demonstration.

Commissioners praised the system, saying it would improve accuracy and hopefully voter participation.

“This sounds incredible. I’m so excited about the idea. This is all about access; it really helps people vote,” Commissioner Debbie Goettel said.

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