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With ‘no excuses’ — and instant gratification — Minnesota sees jump in primary absentee voting

As of Wednesday morning, the secretary of state had accepted 42,088 absentee ballots, or about 15 percent of the more than 280,000 ballots cast in Tuesday’s primary. 

Summertime, and the voting is easier.

Though turnout was low for Minnesota’s primary election on Tuesday — an estimated 7 percent of eligible Minnesota voters cast ballots — an increasing number of those who voted did so by voting early or absentee, a process made easier in the last two election years by recent changes to state law.

As of Wednesday morning, the office of the Minnesota secretary of state had accepted 42,088 absentee ballots, which make up about 15 percent of the more than 280,000 ballots cast statewide in Tuesday’s primary. That’s nearly double the share of absentee votes cast in the August 2014 primary, when 32,710 — or 8 percent of voters — cast their ballots absentee.

Tuesday’s primary results won’t be official until they are certified by the Minnesota Canvassing Board next week, but any changes are likely to be small. The absentee count includes both early in-person votes and ballots that were mailed in.

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The last two election cycles have each seen developments designed to make voting less of a hassle for Minnesotans. In 2014, Minnesota began allowing voters to cast absentee ballots without an excuse, meaning voters no longer had to say they were physically unable — for a variety of permissible reasons — to get to the polls on election day.

But Tuesday’s primary was the first time Minnesotans could get the instant gratification of voting before election day itself. Thanks to a law passed in May, voters can — for seven days leading up to the election — show up in person with their absentee ballot and feed it into the tabulator, just as they would normally do on the day of the election. Previously, in-person absentee voters had to stuff their ballot in envelopes to be processed later, which could cause lines and extra costs for counties, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Voters seem to like the new system, said Ramsey County Election Manager Joe Mansky, though with such a low turnout election, it’s difficult to tell whether the convenience factor actually increased the number of people who voted.

“Admittedly, very few people are going to end up voting in the primary, but in the four weeks we were just doing the in-person absentee voting where you have to do the envelopes and the whole nine yards, our typical number of people coming in a day was in the single digits,” he said. “As soon as we started using the ballot counter (last) Tuesday, we jumped to 40, 50, 60 people coming in during the day.”

Part of the increase, he acknowledged, is due to the fact that more people vote the closer it gets to election day, but he said he thinks voters appreciate the convenience, and the new process. “The fact that people are taking advantage of it would seem to indicate this is what they want — they want more options time-wise,” he said.

On Tuesday, Mansky estimated turnout in Ramsey County was about on par with 2004 — the last time there was a presidential race but no high-profile statewide races on the primary ballot. 

“In ’04 our turnout was 19,779 and my estimate for today is that we would be around 21,000,” he said, with about 13 percent of those votes absentee.