Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, Nov. 20, 2000

Wright officials keep eye on Florida election debacle

By John Holler

Since Nov. 7, most of us have, to varying degrees, followed the soap opera that has become the Florida vote in the presidential election, a debacle that has made celebrities out of county officials and ballot counters, and has put words like "hanging chad," "swinging chad," and "pregnant chad" into the lexicon.

But few people have watched it with more insight than Doug Gruber and Gloria Gooler. Gruber is the Wright County auditor/treasurer, the person in charge of election tallying for the county, and Gooler is the county's election supervisor. As the final results of the presidency were held up, both were thankful for one thing in particular.

"I'm just really glad I'm here in Minnesota and not down there," Gruber said. "We have worked our staff pretty intensely in the weeks leading up to the election. I can only imagine what kind of pressures those counties are under."

However, the problem facing Florida is something that wouldn't and couldn't happen in Minnesota or in Wright County. Why? The election process in Florida uses punch cards (the holes in those cards are called chads) and those have been done away with in Minnesota for similar problems.

"The City of Monticello used to use a punch card system, but that was terminated," said Gooler, who oversaw her 10th election night as a county employee Nov. 7. "That was part of Minnesota election law, because the system was really out of date and led to problems. I knew the word "chad" long before it became used so much in the last week or so, because we had to deal with those before."

The horror stories coming out of Florida have been a staple of newspaper reports and television broadcasts, including tales of lost ballots, confusing ballots and even Holocaust survivors inadvertently voting for Pat Buchanan - a candidate who has praised some of the economic policies of Adolph Hitler in published interviews. However, while such concerns have affected voters in Wright County, those types of problems are eliminated in the Minnesota voting system.

"I've had people contact our office worried about their votes, but that isn't a problem," Gooler said. "We have 39 precincts in Wright County (including four in the City of Buffalo and two in the City of St. Michael) and 26 of those are done by optical scanning and 13 are done by hand count on paper ballots.

"If someone accidently votes for the wrong person, they can tell an election official and get a new ballot. If they accidently vote for two different candidates, which is apparently a big problem in Florida, the optical scan machine won't accept the ballot and gives a printed explanation why, saying that someone has voted twice in one race."

A bigger problem, Gruber said, is the antiquated punch card system, which was outlawed in Minnesota several years ago. Gruber went to school at St. Cloud State University and, in 1974, he worked in the computer lab at the university and saw first-hand the flaws in the punch-card system.

"Those cards aren't intended to be handled or used often," Gruber said. "They are easily damaged and the more times they are handled or run through a machine, the more fragile they become and can cause problems."

Gruber said the presidential election has been a Catch-22 that always seems to happen in close elections. In his job as county assessor, he said just about every time there was a mistake made in assessing values of property, it was in the most contentious areas of the county. The same, he said, is true in Florida, where George W. Bush's brother is the governor, and the secretary of state, who has the final word on the state election, was the co-chair of Bush's presidential campaign in Florida.

"These things always seem to happen in the most volatile areas," Gruber said. "It seems like whenever there is a discrepancy, it always seems to come in areas where people can think there is some kind of conspiracy involved."

While Minnesota's election system is far from perfect ­ until 1996 there wasn't one uniform ballot in Wright County ­ it is a vast improvement over the systems used in other states. Minnesota is known for its voter participation - Gruber said that 80 percent of the eligible voters in Wright County turned out Nov. 7 to vote.While the cost may be extensive to upgrade election systems everywhere, the problems that have been under the spotlight in Florida could have a positive conclusion in the long run.

"If anything good comes out of this ridiculous situation in Florida, it would be that the federal or state governments will come up with a standardized system for voting," Gooler said. "Something needs to be done."

"There are some positives that will come from this mess," Gruber added. "If states go to a standard ballot, that will be a plus. It's also educated a lot of people to the electoral process both adults, and students in social studies or civics classes.

"I think it has taught a lot of people about how the election process works, what the electoral college is, and the importance of voting. If it has done anything good, it has educated a lot of people to a process they may not have known about prior to this."

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