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In Cass County, election officials now know more about voters

Cass County Auditor Michael Montplaisir displays software capable of showing demographic information about voters as seen Wednesday, May 6, 2015, at the Cass County Courthouse in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

FARGO—If they wanted to, Cass County election officials could have figured out how many 20-somethings in the precinct closest to the university voted every minute that polls were open during the recent city election.

Poll-book software the county is testing gave officials unprecedented access to information that previously would have taken a lot of time to manually tabulate from state and county databases.

Knowing how many people voted at which polling station helps ensure elections go smoothly, said county Auditor Mike Montplaisir.

"We could see when people are voting, and we can build in alerts," he said. "If we send out 1,000 ballots to a precinct and we see 800 people voted there, we may need to send more ballots out."

More broadly though, he said, the data helps voters and candidates. "We think this can be a good educational tool for the voters. If you're complaining because your candidate doesn't get elected, look at the demographics of who's voting. Maybe they need to concentrate their education efforts."

During the April 28 city election, data show the largest number of voters came from Fargo's south side. Those at the tail end of their working years voted more than other age groups, while college-age people hardly voted at all.

The special election was for mayor, a city commissioner and a city charter amendment.

The main source of information about voters is the secretary of state's central voter file, which contains the names of people who voted, their address, age, sex, identification such as driver's license number and how often they voted. County officials gather this data for the state and update them as voters move to new precincts, change to a married name or die.

Candidates, parties and political committees can buy the data to help them target voters, though some information is off limits, such as driver's license numbers. Under state law, only candidates, parties and political committees can buy the data and only for election purposes; they may not give the data to anyone else unless for election purposes.

Justin Anderson, who oversees the central voter file, said three people bought election data for the city of Fargo in advance of the special election: City Commission candidate Scott Wagner, local Democrats helping commission candidate John Strand and state Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo. At $35 per county and $35 per megabyte, the cost for each was $70, Anderson said.

Montplaisir said parties will often buy voter data after early voting to find out if their members have voted, allowing them to remind those who haven't voted.

The other source of information also comes from the county, which records who voted at a polling station and at what time on Election Day.

How individual voters voted will still remain a secret because the paper ballots are not tied to the identity of voters.

The beauty of the new software system, called CentralPoint, is it allows election officials like Montplaisir and DeAnn Buckhouse, Cass County's election coordinator, to track the information in real time from desktop computers or tablets.

They said the system could eventually be set up to give news media access to similar data. Montplaisir said TV stations are especially keen to find out which polling stations are busiest.

CentralPoint will cost the county $300,000 if purchased and, while the data is nice, Montplaisir said it's really just a bonus feature. The county needs new software and new electronic poll books because the old system is extremely buggy, with data not going to central servers on time and poll books that freeze up.

During the special election, 14,554 city residents voted, more than the 13,820 who voted in the city election last June. With an estimated adult population of 87,052 in the city, that suggests voter turnout rates of 16.7 percent and 15.9 percent, respectively.

While all offices on the ballot are at large and not by precinct, county data show which precinct voters lived in. There were 5,537 voters from the south end, 3,768 from the north end, 3,534 in the central part of the city from north downtown to Interstate 94, and 1,081 from all areas west of Interstate 29. The precinct in the northside neighborhoods of Horace Mann and Washington had the largest number of voters at 1,387. The worst turnout was from the precinct in the westside neighborhoods of West Acres and Village West with 157. Other precincts had much worse turnout, but they were partially in West Fargo and voters there couldn't vote in Fargo's election.

Among age groups, those in the 55 to 64 age group had the largest number of voters with 3,831. The 18 to 24 group had the smallest number with 333. Compared with the latest population estimates, though, the 65 to 74 group had the largest turnout at 51.4 percent, or 3,005 voters. The 18 to 24 group looks even worse with 1.3 percent. There are more people in this age group than all people age 55 and older.

The 55 to 64 group had a turnout of 31.2 percent.

Montplaisir said younger people tend to vote more in presidential elections in his experience, which is a shame because they have a lot at stake in state and local elections, too, such as social issues and quality-of-life issues.

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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