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What Minnesota’s mid-pandemic primary means for the November election

Overall, election officials were pleased with how smoothly things went in last week’s primary, despite a number of COVID-19 induced obstacles.

Mail-in ballots
REUTERS/Mike Blake
Around 542,000 Minnesotans voted early or by mail.
Last week, Minnesota conducted the first mid-pandemic election that anyone living can remember. But, short of a miracle, it won’t be the last.

All things considered — and there were a lot of considerations, between a mail-in ballot bonanza, mask requirements, sanitizing and social distancing at the polls — election officials say the primary went smoothly.

That should bode well for the November general.

“The analogy I’ve used is that the primary was like a dress rehearsal. November 3 will be opening night. A lot can go sideways between the dress rehearsal and opening night, but we felt very good,” about the primary, said Secretary of State Steve Simon.

Here’s a rundown of how things went last week.

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There were enough poll workers

Minnesota needs around 30,000 poll workers to work an election, and one big concern leading up to the primary was whether enough people would be willing to do this job during a pandemic.

Worst-case scenario, a state could end up like Wisconsin, which closed polling places because of a poll worker shortage in April, Simon said.

That didn’t happen this time in Minnesota. State and local recruitment efforts succeeded in replacing poll workers — often older people at higher risk of complications from COVID-19 — who weren’t comfortable working the polls.

It’s not too late to sign up to be an election judge for November, though.

“That remains, to be honest, one of the top challenges for the general election, given the scope and scale,” Simon said. “We have to redouble our efforts to recruit.”

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There were tons of mail-in ballots

Election officials across the state were pitching vote-by-mail to Minnesotans as a way to cut down on polling place traffic amid COVID-19. Their efforts seem to have worked.

The numbers aren’t finalized yet, but when they are, Simon is expecting that more than half of Minnesotans voted either early or by mail.

As of Monday, Simon’s count showed about 850,000 people voted, but he expects that number to be above 900,000 when the numbers are finalized. So far, around 542,000 people voted early or by mail. That includes the Minnesotans who live in all-mail jurisdictions.

Secretary of State Steve Simon
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Secretary of State Steve Simon
That’s a huge jump from 2018, when 24 percent of voters voted early or by mail.

This year, in-person polling traffic was flat or down compared to other primaries, but overall turnout was high for a primary, which is not necessarily expected when there are no big statewide contests on the ballot. For reference, in 2018, with two contested gubernatorial primaries, 925,554 Minnesotans turned out to vote.

“I attribute it to the huge and growing appetite for voting from home. Particularly in a pandemic, people are getting the message that this is a good option for many many people,” Simon said. On the secretary of state’s website, people had the option of requesting both their primary and their general election ballots (those won’t start going out until September). Some people who may not have traditionally been primary voters may have ordered ballots when they ordered their general election ballots and decided to vote in the primary.

In Southern Minnesota’s Blue Earth County, about 71 percent of votes were cast early or by mail, a huge jump from years past.

Because the general election brings out a bigger cross-section of voters, Michael Stalberger, Blue Earth County’s director of property and environmental resources, isn’t expecting the vote-by-mail share to be quite that high for the general, but he is expecting a lot of ballots.

Stalberger said the extra week local governments got to process ballots, thanks to a law change, was helpful in dealing with the volume of early votes: Normally, counties can start opening and processing early ballots a week before the election, but this time it was two weeks.

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Masks at the polls were not a big deal

Simon says he expected to hear more about masks being required at the polls on primary day.

If someone didn’t have a mask to wear at their polling place, poll workers were supposed to offer them one. If they still refused, they were to be offered curbside voting, long an option for Minnesotans. If they outright refused, poll workers were to record their name in an incident logbook.

If there were any reports of voters being mask scofflaws, Simon didn’t hear them. On the contrary, he heard a report from Minneapolis where a voter who was masked complained that an election judge was wearing a mask carelessly.

An election judge wearing personal protective equipment at the early voting center off East Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
If someone refused to wear a mask at their polling place, poll workers were supposed to offer them one.
Polling places also had enough PPE — another concern leading up to Election Day. And with traffic down because of more voting by mail, people were generally able to socially distance, Simon said.

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Results came in over days — as planned

Because of some litigation that challenged Minnesota’s requirement that ballots be in by Election Day, vote-by-mail voters got a two-day grace period for their ballots to arrive at their elections center, provided they were postmarked by Election Day. The extension means full results took longer to be counted than they have in past years. “I just want people to know that’s by design. That’s not a sign that your city or county screwed up or fell down on the job,” Simon said. “People just have to be patient.”

For most races, there were enough results on primary election night to determine the winners.

It’s not clear yet how many ballots came in after Election Day, during the two-day grace period.

As for November, expect more of the same — except that the grace period is seven days, as long as ballots are postmarked by Election Day.

Amid fears that the Trump administration is trying to undermine the U.S. Postal Service, Simon had a few pointers for voters who want to vote by mail in November but are concerned about getting their vote counted. One, request your ballot early. Two, vote as soon as you’re comfortable with your choices. Three, just because you get your. ballot by mail doesn’t mean you have to return it by mail — you can bring it in person to your election center  (not your polling place) or have someone return it for you. And four, if you’re concerned about whether your ballot arrived, you can check its status at mnvotes.org.