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Want to avoid the polls this year? Here’s everything you need to know about absentee voting in Minnesota

With COVID-19 on many voters’ minds, Minnesota has sent out a record number of absentee ballots — more than 350,000 as of last week.

Absentee ballot application
MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson

Minnesotans have been able to vote by mail since 2014 — thanks to the introduction of no-excuse absentee balloting.

Still, most don’t, perhaps preferring the ritual of going in person to their polling station; seeing their neighbors; getting that “I Voted” sticker.

That could change this year thanks to COVID-19. A record number of Minnesotans have requested absentee ballots — 350,516 as of last Friday, compared to 12,936 at this time in 2016 and 21,043 in 2018. Election officials are pleased with the high absentee numbers since that will cut down on traffic at polling places in the middle of this pandemic.

With so many brand-new absentee voters this year, here’s a look at how the process works — how to get a ballot and submit it, what happens on Election Day, and what to do if you change your mind.

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How to get a ballot

Voters can request a ballot by going to mnvotes.org and filling out a request form. Requesting the ballot takes five minutes or less, said Secretary of State Steve Simon (this can also be done on paper, with directions found at the link above).

Voters can request ballots for both the primary and the November general election. The form asks for a voter’s name, birthday, address, phone number and identifying information, such as the last four digits of their social security number or driver’s license (there are other options for people who don’t have these).

There’s lots of time before November, but for those wanting to vote by mail for the August 11 primary, ballots should be requested as soon as possible, Simon said. The actual ballots are sent out by counties and cities, not the state, and some local governments won’t be able to send the ballot in time if they receive the request the same week as the election.

Hennepin County elections manager Ginny Gelms said once a request is submitted, it’s automatically put into a queue with city and county elections offices (in Hennepin County, Minneapolis manages elections within the city and Hennepin County manages elections for the suburbs). An elections official looks over the request to make sure it’s legitimate, mailing labels are generated and the ballot is sent out.

Filling out the ballot

Filling out an absentee ballot is just like filling out a regular ballot. In partisan races, voters can only vote in one party’s contests — a ballot would be thrown out if it had, say, a vote in a Republican congressional primary and a DFL state House race. (A list of what’s on the ballot, based on location, can be found here.)

By law, Minnesota is one of 11 states that require the signature of a witness when voters cast ballots by mail — and Minnesota is the only state that requires the witness be a registered voter in the state (this doesn’t apply to overseas and military voters). But that’s not necessary this year — at least for the primary. Due to an agreement made by the Secretary of State after a legal challenge to the rule, absentee ballots cast in the August primary do not require a witness.

Instead for security, voters are required to provide the same last four social security digits or drivers license number they provided in their application.

There is still one situation this year where absentee ballots do require a witness: If you haven’t registered to vote yet. Non-registered voters can vote absentee, but their signature envelope needs to be signed by a witness who is a registered Minnesota voter (or by a notary, or someone who can administer oaths). They must also submit a voter registration application.

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Mailing the ballot

Once a ballot is complete, it just needs to go in its envelope and back in the mail.

Previously, absentee ballots in Minnesota had to arrive by Election Day to be counted, but that’s changed this time around. For the August primary, ballots just need to be postmarked by Election Day (August 11), and arrive at election offices no later than two days after the election — by Thursday, August 13.

“It requires the voter to make some judgment about the speed of mail service. If you don’t think two days is enough, you don’t want to send it on Election Day, because it won’t arrive on Thursday,” Simon said.

There’s also the option to  drop an absentee ballot off in person at an election center — whether it’s city hall, the county court house or a voting center (specific information on voting centers can be found here). Absentee ballots cannot be dropped off at polling places on Election Day.

Counting votes

Counties and cities that administer elections can open envelopes and start processing ballots 14 days before the election (normally they start this process seven days before the election). These ballots won’t actually start being counted until after polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day. Those results will then be transmitted by county election officials to the Secretary of State, whose office posts them online.

But remember: the rules for the primary this year say that ballots only have to be postmarked by Election Day and received no later than two days after that. So full election results won’t be known until after all those late votes have been counted. That could make a difference, especially in a very close race.

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Changing your mind

Absentee ballots can be mailed in weeks before Election Day. Sometimes, that might mean new information comes out about a candidate that would lead a voter to want to change their vote after mailing their ballot in.

That’s provided for in Minnesota law, known as “clawing back” a ballot. To do so, a voter must contact the elections office — city or county — that sent the ballot, and ask that their ballot be canceled. At this point, a vote can be re-cast in one of three ways: by requesting a new absentee ballot, in-person at the local election office or at a traditional polling place on the day of the election.

For both the August primary and the November general this year, voters can claw back their ballots until 14 days before the election — July 28.