At 8 p.m. Tuesday, the polls across Minnesota close.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in some changes to the way election returns are reported. In all likelihood, Minnesotans will know the winners of most races Tuesday night or shortly thereafter, but ballots received up to seven days after Election Day will still be counted, as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. Those late-arriving ballots could make a difference in close races.
The seven-day grace period is the result of a consent decree signed over the summer, settling a lawsuit. Earlier this year, the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans and other citizen groups sued to extend the deadline for mailed-in ballots to arrive and be accepted past the usual 8 p.m. on Election Day. They reasoned that a deluge of mail-in-ballots could slow the mail, resulting in some voters’ ballots arriving too late to be counted through no fault of their own.
Last week, a decision from Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel seemed to call the grace period into question, although it still technically stands. The three-judge panel decided two to one that ballots arriving after 8 p.m. on election night need to be segregated so the votes they contain for president could potentially be invalidated and subtracted from the tally if they are successfully challenged in the future.
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon has said it’s his interpretation that the decision currently only applies to presidential votes, though he said the judicial panel suggested its scope could be made wider through further litigation. As soon as the decision came down, Simon began to encourage voters not to rely on the mail lest their ballots arrive after 8 p.m. on Tuesday and ultimately have votes invalidated.
So what does this mean for counting ballots?
Simon said Friday it’s full steam ahead on the plan his office already had in place for reporting election results.
After polls close Tuesday, local election offices will begin transmitting results to the Secretary of State’s office. The Secretary of State’s website will begin reporting them. (As usual, MinnPost will post results on our Live Election Results Dashboard as they become available.) What’s all in the totals Tuesday night?
“What is posted on election night will be comprised of everything we’ve received from all 87 counties, and what they have received will include everyone who’s voted that day in person and all or substantially all of the ballots they have received so far,” whether they were cast early in-person or early by mail and were already processed, Simon said in a recent press briefing.
This year, local elections offices began opening and processing mail ballots two weeks before Election Day. That means they could separate the ballots from the envelopes they came in and start putting them into the counting machines, though they couldn’t allow the machines to actually count up the votes until polls close.
As of Monday morning, 1.72 million ballots — or 58 percent of total turnout in 2016 — had already been accepted. So on Tuesday night, we can expect 1.72 million plus whatever ballots came in via mail and got processed plus early votes on Monday and Tuesday during the day, plus regular Election Day polling place votes.
If it’s anything like the primary election in August, which had a two-day grace period for ballots postmarked on or before Election Day, many, if not most of the results of races will be known on election night. But because of the seven-day grace period, vote totals will be updated every day in the week following the election as ballots come in.
Normally, people who closely watch election results pay attention to the “precincts reporting” measure reported by the Secretary of State, which tells what percent of the precincts have reported their results to the state office, to determine when all the results from a given district are in. This year, a word of caution: it’ll tell you which precincts have reported early and Election Day votes to the state, but you should be mindful that more votes may come in over the seven-day grace period.
The Secretary of State’s office will also report the number of ballots that are outstanding still, statewide on down to the House district level — meaning absentee ballots that went out but have not yet been accepted. In a recent press briefing, Simon described a scenario where a candidate is up by 500 votes over her opponent with 300 votes outstanding, meaning they haven’t arrived yet or were never mailed.
“Even if all 300 go for her opponent, we know that mathematically she’s won. We won’t know for a week [by how much],” he said.
While the ballots that arrive after 8 p.m. will be segregated in compliance with the Eighth Circuit panel decision so their votes ultimately could be separated out, there will be just one reported tally of all the votes, Simon said. The data won’t separate votes cast early versus on Election Day, or those that arrive on or before Election Day versus after.
This year, Simon and other election officials have repeatedly urged Minnesotans to be patient with results: Minnesotans won’t have 100 percent of the election results in until a week after the election, and that’s by design. The aim, he said, is to provide good data and maximum transparency.
“This is the plan. [The weeklong count] is not the result of someone’s laziness or screw up or falling down on the job, or failing to plan ahead,” he told reporters. “When citizens see on election night we don’t have 100 percent of the results in it is literally by design.”