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Olmsted County elections manager: Work rivals his Middle East deployments

Former Air Force airman sees new challenges in operating Olmsted County elections.

Olmsted County Elections
Luke Turner, Olmsted County Elections manager, speaks during an informational presentation about Olmsted County Elections on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Luke Turner spent six years helping keep U.S. Air Force jets in the sky and four more years working to recruit others to join the Air Force before joining Olmsted County’s elections team in 2020.

With his second regular election nearing, the Post Bulletin sat down with the elections manager to talk about the experience. Here’s some of what he had to say:

Why the shift from avionics to elections? 

After I separated from the Air Force, I was looking for something in the public sector. … I was looking exclusively for county, or city or government-type jobs, just to keep serving in the public sector. … When I saw the elections opening, I thought that just made sense.

I was really looking for public service, and I had checked out a number of other jobs, but this one really made sense as far as the skill set and the ability to give back.

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Was it a difficult adjustment? 

How (the work) translates the most, I would say is in the deployments. I would work the launch truck, so when we are deployed there are 15 to 20 jets that take off every day. During your shift, you are on standby and if anything breaks on the jet, you have to quickly go out and fix it and get it up in the air. That translated one-to-one to election day. It’s really exciting and really fast paced, where issues come up that need to be solved now. It gives you an opportunity to think on your feet and get something done.

You were likely under less public scrutiny working on jets. How does the election work compare? 

I’ve been on multiple mobile deployments to the Middle East, and the 2020 election was as hard as anything I’ve ever done in my life.

Then, to hear about mistrust in the elections, it’s disappointing. You went through the whole year and feel you accomplished something amazing, and then that feels like a little bit of a let down.

On the national level, that mistrust has lingered for two years. How do you respond?

I really feel if someone knew all the processes we have, they’d be 100% comfortable with the elections. …

“Because of the national narrative, it sometimes feels like we can’t win the argument as best we can. I feel we have really won over a lot of people, especially the ballot board. … We keep winning people over one at a time.

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Did your time as a recruiter help with building personal connections? 

(Being a recruiter) develops you in hundreds of ways that you wouldn’t expect, from talking on the phone to making presentations. It helps with election judge training and talking to people on the phone when they call.

Without the experience as a recruiter, I would have struggled out of the gate.

Olmsted County Elections
Luke Turner, Olmsted County Elections manager, goes over ballot counting during an informational presentation about Olmsted County Elections on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

What concerns about the election process are most common? 

Distrust in the voting equipment seems to be fairly common, but we test those fairly thoroughly. We run 40,000-plus ballots through each machine prior to an election and we make sure they tally out one to one. There are also four hand-counted precincts after the election, selected at random. With the procedures in place, it’s thorough. There’s not a lot of room for equipment error.

What happens if there is a problem? 

Every issue we’ve had since I’ve been here is that we’ve mismarked — because we are marking tens of thousands of ballots by hand and errors pop up. If a ballot is mismarked and the results aren’t exactly as expected, we’ll go through the deck (of test ballots) and find the ballot that was mismarked, remove it, replace it properly marked and restart the process.

What if an error occurs, but no mismarked ballot is identified?

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“If that happened we’d immediately go back to the vendor and get a new set of programming. The machines themselves would stay the same, but the media stick programming would be swapped out. … Normally, we would like to do it as soon as possible to test the uploads, but if that happened it would be all-hands-on-deck and hopefully the vendor could get it to us within a week and testing would start over.

“I haven’t seen that since I’ve been here.”

Absentee voting options start on Friday.

Before each election, you also conduct public testing opportunities. How many people take advantage of that? 

The public accuracy test is very poorly attended, but we do the same thing every time. With any public accuracy test, we are ready if a crowd of people show up, but it’s fairly rare.

Another occasional complaint is that people reported receiving multiple ballots two years ago. Has that ever been proven to have happened? 

In most scenarios, where we’ve talked to the individual one-on-one, it was the application (for a ballot). Most people received a lot of applications (in 2020). I received four or five applications at my house. … I would imagine that’s most of the complaints.

As far as the duplicate ballot (being mailed), we need to have a signed filled out application on hand before we send out a ballot.

Another national focus has been on voting machines. Is that a local concern?

Most national stories were over Dominion. We use (Election Systems & Software machines), so it wasn’t our type of equipment.

As far as our equipment, it’s never hooked up to the internet, we don’t have modems, there are standalone tabulators.

Amid the frustrations, how is Olmsted County elections staff working to raise awareness of how things operate locally? 

We’ve gone out of our way to create videos and invite people in, just to show our process and be as transparent as possible. … I think the biggest thing for us is educating the public on what we are doing, the processes and procedures and letting them know what we do here is by the books.

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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