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The case for restoring polling place options for all Minnesota voters

Early this year, we had problematic elections in state Senate District 11. Many mail-in ballots were not received by the primary and general-election deadlines.

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Ann Markusen
Early this year, we had problematic elections in state Senate District 11. In the Carlton County portion alone, 400 ballots mailed to the courthouse were not received by the primary deadline, Jan. 22. More than 100 absentee ballots arrived too late for the Feb. 5 general election, too. These special elections were required because newly elected Gov. Walz appointed the district’s standing senator, Tony Lourey, to be Minnesota’s commissioner of human services. Our election officials – Auditor Paul Gassert in the case of Carlton County – followed the law. It required a quick turnaround so the Senate seat would not be left unoccupied when the Legislature convened in late January.

What happened? Many rural area voters must vote by mail, especially those in unorganized townships. Primary ballots went out to voters on Monday and Tuesday of the prior week. Many people in the northwestern portion of Carlton County, including my household, did not received their ballots in the mail until Friday or Saturday. With no mail on Sunday, and Monday’s Martin Luther King holiday, hundreds of people who attempted to vote ended up disenfranchised. If you want to know if your ballot was counted, you can find out if you go personally go to your county’s courthouse to inquire.

Cromwell to Duluth to Twin Cities …

Why is the mail so slow? From our Cromwell post office, for instance, first class mail now goes to Duluth, where it is then shipped to the Twin Cities area before being forwarded to local post offices in our area. It once was directly returned to our post offices from the Duluth Postal Center, closed in 2015. The advent of email, Facebook, online banking, and competition from FedEx and UPS has undermined the finances of the U.S. Postal Service.

Many smaller communities around the state and country are facing similar mail slowdowns. Even big cities. Recently, the Star Tribune reported on its front page that neighborhoods in Minneapolis are reporting post office deliveries a week and more later than usual. Legislators are considering changing the special election laws to take these slowdowns into account. But that won’t solve all the problems with mandatory absentee ballots.

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My husband and I used to vote at our local high school. Living in an unorganized township, we are forced to vote by mail. A different organized township’s polling place is just two-tenths of a mile from our house! But we have no option but to vote by mail.

Mail balloting is preferred by some voters. It’s good for people who can’t get to the polls easily – invalids, elderly people, those working temporarily outside of our communities or out of town on Election Day. Any registered voter can request an absentee ballot for any election. Though in this recent primary and general Senate election, Carlton County Auditor Gassert confirms that many registered voters who are wintering out of state or on business travel would not have been able to return their ballots in time.

Trained judges, no monkey business, privacy

In our case, and for many others I’ve spoken with, we prefer a live polling place. Why? Several reasons. I like entering the polling place and finding that trained election judges are running the show. They do so fairly and with transparency. They answer questions and treat everyone with respect. Partisan poll watchers help ensure there is no monkey business. People who need assistance (if the voter has poor eyesight, language issues, or any confusions on offices) can request help or bring someone into the voting booth with them.

Above all, the privacy of the voting booth offers every voter what we’re entitled to – secret ballots. Most of us know, or suspect, that in some households, especially since you must ask your spouse or someone else to witness that you’ve voted on mail ballots, one may intimidate the other into voting his or her preferences. And what if the person who picks up and delivers your rural mail knows how you vote (e.g. yard signs) and decides to toss it in the wastebasket? Most of us never check that our ballots arrive at the courthouse.

By the way, even if your vote wasn’t counted in this special Senate race, you did get voting credit for returning a “late” ballot. This is important, because if you haven’t voted for four years, the state will purge you from the registered voters list. Voters beware!

Over past decades, and distressingly, this past year, we’ve witnessed major voter fraud in other states. Two weeks ago in North Carolina, four people were arrested for fraudulently collecting and submitting absentee ballots in a low-income, southeastern area of that state during both the 2018 primary and 2016 general elections.

The change wouldn’t be costly

In a phone interview last week, Carlton County Auditor Gassert stated that it would not be a major problem, or costly, to restore polling places options for all Carlton County voters. The county could provide one polling place serving thinly populated townships (a.g. Carlton’s Red Clover, Eagle, Corona). The county currently pays for election equipment, the training of election judges, publications, ballot preparation and vote counting and recording. Some organized townships pay for rental space and their own election judges. Gassert estimates that restoring the local site option would be relatively inexpensive, a negligible increase in property taxes for an average household.

If we want this option, we must let our county commissioners and city and township leaders know our preferences. We can offer to help identify possible polling venues with good access and parking, as well as people willing to be trained as election officials. I, for one, am volunteering!

Ann Markusen is a retired University of Minnesota political economist and resident of Red Clover Township, Carlton County.


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