County approves purchase of machine to count more mail ballots

Published 2:58 pm Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Freeborn County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday approved the purchase of new voting equipment that can count ballots at a faster pace if people opt to vote by mail instead of going to their polling locations in upcoming elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Freeborn County Auditor-Treasurer Pat Martinson, who oversees elections in the county, said currently about one-fifth of total voters vote by mail or absentee, and she expects those numbers to go up exponentially just like how the rate the virus is spreading.

“With the situation around the world right now, we want to be prepared in case people are not able to get to the polls,” she said. The primary is slated for August with the general election in November.

The central count machine, which costs $53,000, can count ballots about 10 times faster than the tabulator the county presently has.

She said with the amount of ballots the county is already tallying with its current machine, it will be worthwhile to have the machinery even if the threat of COVID-19 decreases in the coming months.

She is hopeful to get grants from the government for the equipment, though there is room in the county budget to pay for it after postponing the purchase of updated assisted voting equipment. When the county had trainings in the spring for the presidential primary, she said she thought the judges were satisfied with the equipment and the machines seem to be still functioning.

In other action, the board:

• Heard an update from Freeborn County Administrator Tom Jensen about the county’s response to the threat of COVID-19.

He said he, Freeborn County Public Health Director Sue Yost, Freeborn County Public Health Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Anita Majerus and Freeborn County Emergency Manager Rich Hall continue to meet twice a day about the county’s emergency response.

He noted the county has a large stockpile of personal protective equipment but is low on surgical masks that are being used by the jail staff and inmates to prevent any transmission. Right now there are no confirmed cases in the jail.

He said the county’s License Center is functional again through a drop box after being closed for a while. A drop box is near the door to the License Center, as well as on the back side of the building.

Another issue being worked on is a plan for adjusting property tax deadlines for businesses affected by closures. He noted they will still be required to pay their taxes, but the date will likely be pushed back.

He said, overall, he thinks the county is well prepared though many questions remain regarding what will happen in case there is a large influx in hospitalizations.

Officials from the county and city were slated to have a conference call Tuesday afternoon with officials from Mayo Clinic Health System to find out more details about the health system’s plans.

Many of these details were unknown during the county board meeting.

Jensen said at that point, he had heard there is availability in the hospital but there was a worry about not having the staff necessary to operate it.

He said his main concern is making sure that the equipment in the area, including personal protective equipment and ventilators, remains here and doesn’t get sent to larger cities in the state.

Freeborn County Attorney David Walker said a complaint that a person is allegedly being evicted from treatment at Fountain Centers has been forwarded to the U.S. Attorney General’s Office.

Jensen said the issue came about after at least two patients tested positive for the virus last week.

He said the health system has been working with the state Department of Health, and all current patients at Fountain Centers are going to remain, while the ones with the virus were quarantined to their rooms. No new patients are being accepted.

All are wearing personal protective equipment, and from his understanding there were still four patients in the inpatient Fountain Centers unit and four in the extended care program. He said from what he has heard, the people who tested positive are staying put until they are either non-symptomatic or they are free from quarantine.

• Voted to recess the County Ditch J9 two-stage ditch hearing to 8:45 a.m. April 21.

• Placed Jill Nelson, a Department of Human Services supervisor, on regular full-time status.

• Placed Megan Reule, License Center office support specialist, on regular full-time status.