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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Some votes in Tower likely won’t be counted

Marcus White and Marshall Helmberger
Posted 8/15/18

TOWER— Nearly one-in-five voters here could have their votes disqualified after election officials handed out the wrong ballots to a number of city residents on Tuesday.

The snafu left …

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Some votes in Tower likely won’t be counted


TOWER— Nearly one-in-five voters here could have their votes disqualified after election officials handed out the wrong ballots to a number of city residents on Tuesday.

The snafu left erroneous vote totals on the Secretary of State’s website and created an administrative headache for election officials from Tower to St. Paul.

The problem arose when election officials handed out ballots to as many as 25 residents of Tower’s first precinct that were printed for the city’s second precinct. Tower’s Precinct 2, which is currently an uninhabited industrial area, is distinct from the rest of Tower because it lies within Legislative District 6B while the populated portion of the city lies in District 3A.

And therein lies the rub, since the ballots for the second precinct are different from the ones used elsewhere in the city. And District 6B had a primary contest on the DFL side of the ballot, in which residents of Tower should not have been able to vote. A total of 131 voters went to the polls in Tower on Tuesday.

Tower City Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith blamed St. Louis County election officials for the snafu, claiming on Tuesday that the county had sent the ballots to the city without clearly separating the precincts. County Auditor Donald Dicklich called that claim “disingenuous,” and said the ballots that the city should have used came in separate, marked packages, sealed in plastic, which is how they were delivered by county staff. Instead of using the sealed ballots, Dicklich said it appears that the election officials in Tower added loose ballots that the county also provides for testing purposes ahead of the election to the official ballots after they were opened on Tuesday.

If the ballots had been mixed, as Keith claimed, Dicklich said she never reported the problem. Nor does it appear that election officials in Tower made any effort to separate them.

Indeed, election officials appeared unaware of the situation on Tuesday, when a voter expressed concern that he might have received the wrong ballot. Steve Wilson, who had attended his caucus, been a delegate to the Third District convention, and attended a number of candidate forums, said he was surprised when his ballot listed the 6B DFL contest between Dave Lislegard and Shaun Hainey. “When I came out of the voting booth, I asked why I was being asked to vote on that race. I told them Rob Ecklund is our legislator,” he said.

According to Wilson, the election officials appeared unsure of the situation and he wasn’t confident they were going to look into it. “They just kind of shrugged their shoulders,” he said.

Wilson then walked to the Timberjay office in hopes of confirming his belief that he had been given the wrong ballot. While there, he was able to confirm that he resides in District 3, at which point he went back to the polling place to let the election officials know.

“I thought if they had the wrong ballot, it had to be nipped in the bud,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Timberjay reached out to election officials with St. Louis County, who subsequently contacted Keith, who is in charge of election administration in Tower. At that point, election officials in Tower took steps to address the problem.

But the damage was done, and as of Wednesday election officials in St. Paul and St. Louis County were scurrying to decide how to address the issue.

Dicklich said Keith had suggested that the election officials in Tower could disregard the votes cast in the Lislegard-Hainey race, while counting the votes on the rest of the affected ballots. But Dicklich said legal counsel from the Secretary of State’s office have indicated that state law provides no authority for local election officials to make such a determination. He said the ballots will likely be designated as excess ballots and will not be counted.

“I’m not happy about it,” said Dicklich. “I don’t like to see anybody disenfranchised,” he said.

Wilson, who says he spent considerable time informing himself about the candidates and took his vote seriously, said he’s incredibly frustrated that an error by local election officials have likely rendered his efforts meaningless.

“Disenfranchising voters should be the last resort,” he said. “Here, the voter intent is clear.”

Perhaps the only saving grace, is that none of the races on the ballot were close enough that the 25 votes could have made a difference. But that’s slim comfort, notes Dicklich, who said the training that election officials receive is supposed to prevent such mishaps, because sometimes every vote can be critical in an election. “A person who has been involved in elections for a while should have known that you don’t take loose ballots and use them on election day,” he said.