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Yes, Minnesota could move to vote-by-mail for the 2020 election. No, it won’t be easy.

Lexi Menth of Seattle holds up her vote-by-mail ballot.
REUTERS/Jason Redmond
Lexi Menth of Seattle holds up her vote-by-mail ballot.

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman is very popular with her colleagues these days.

As the person in charge of elections for one of the nation’s five vote-by-mail states, Wyman’s office has been fielding calls from state government officials all over the country, many with the same question: how could they use all-mail elections in the face of COVID-19?

“I’ve kind of lost count,” Wyman said of the calls. “It’s been non-stop.”

The contagion may ease over the next few months, but the more likely scenario is that restrictions on gatherings could continue for a long time — or be reinstated as the cooler weather reappears. 

Yet primaries and general elections for president, Congress and state legislatures are all scheduled for this summer and fall. And having voters come into voting precincts to cast ballots, not to mention having poll workers staff election sites, might not be a wise option. 

“We’re in an emergency situation,” said Wyman, a Republican in a very blue state. “We have to get past politics and the partisan lines and figure out how to protect voters and come up with some solutions.”

Wyman, a longtime advocate for vote-by-mail, has mixed news for her fellow secretaries of state. Yes, they can do it — though it takes time and money. States that already have broad use of no-excuse absentee balloting and early voting are in a stronger starting position to make a quicker transition. Those who do not will have a much harder time.

“States that are like Washington was 10 years ago or California is now, where 60 percent of your voters are voting absentee already, you can make that transition … this year,” Wyman said. “The further a state is away from that, the harder it is going to be, and the more resources it will take.” 

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman
For Minnesota, which falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, with no-excuse absentee voting and early voting, “it’s a heavy lift but it can be done,” she said. 

To do so, the state would probably need to centralize its mail ballot processing, instead of how it’s done now: in dozens of counties and cities across the state. That’s because the infrastructure required to process the mail-in ballots — high-speed envelope sorting machinery, staffing, space — is just too expensive to duplicate locally.

The five current vote-by-mail states — Washington, Oregon, Utah, Hawaii and Colorado — still have election day voting centers for voters who want to invoke same-day registration or who lost their ballots. And there are still centralized centers for ballot processing that currently have staff in close quarters, a reality that caused Wyman and 18 county elections officers to ask Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to postpone spring special elections for school levies and bond issues.

“From courthouse closures, to workforce reductions of election staff, postal staff, or disruptions with vendors who support election operations, circumstances outside of our control could make it impossible for counties to meet statutory election requirements,” the letter stated. “These include mail processing, voter registration, canvassing results, and certifying an election.”

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said he is talking with legislators as well as local election officials about what elections might look like during a pandemic.

Expanded vote by mail “is certainly on the menu,” Simon said. “Obviously, the number one priority will be minimizing situations where people are congregating, and that means polling places.”

“I do generally think that moving towards more voting by mail is the way we’re gonna have to go if this thing lasts or recurs in August or November,” he said. 

While the Minnesota primary isn’t until August, there are three school elections this spring in Minnesota. Houston County is trying to fill an open county commissioner seat, and Simon said he is talking to local officials there to see if those elections need to be delayed.

In recent elections, Minnesota had about 24 percent of its vote cast by mail or via early voting. “We are far-better equipped than most states to ramp up mail participation,” Simon said. 

Secretary of State Steve Simon
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Secretary of State Steve Simon
But he said Wyman told him and other secretaries of state this week that in order to be a viable option for 2020, decisions need to be made in weeks, not months. 

In Minnesota, whether such a dramatic change could be done via executive order by the governor, or would need to be passed by the Legislature, isn’t clear. And neither the Minnesota House nor the state Senate appears to be very far along in those conversations.

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, the Big Lake Republican who chairs the Senate State Government Committee dismissed the need for broad changes. “Discussing major changes to our current election system at this time would be premature,” said the former secretary of state. “Minnesota already has no-excuse absentee voting, and social-distancing for elections could be accommodated under current law.

“Given the current situation, it’s beneficial for everyone if daily life, including elections, will be expected to return to normal and if still needed, use appropriate mitigations with current law.”

Rep. Raymond Dehn, the chair of the House Elections Subcommittee, said talks are in the preliminary stage as to what changes to election law are needed, if any. “We are monitoring the progress of the crisis and are currently in conversation with the Office of Secretary of State to evaluate several options to be sure that voters will be able to safely participate in upcoming elections,” the Minneapolis DFLer said.

Congress seems more focused on the issue. The compromise COVID-19 response bill has $400 million for state elections efforts “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, for the 2020 Federal election cycle.” The money would flow through the Help America Vote Act mechanism which means the Minnesota Legislature would have to approve spending, something that has led to delays and controversy with cybersecurity grants.

2018 general election absentee balloting and general election mail balloting
Minnesota Secretary of State
2018 general election absentee balloting and general election mail balloting (Click to enlarge)
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has cosponsored legislation to expand early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail to all states. It would also allow voters who did not receive ballots to use printable ballots now used for some military voters.

Said co-sponsor Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon: “Vote by mail is increasingly looking like the only way for states to conduct elections. If Ohio, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland and Kentucky had vote-by-mail on the books years ago, they wouldn’t have had to postpone their elections. No one should have to put their health at risk to vote.”

State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer
State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer
The UCLA Voting Rights Project issued a white paper this week calling for universal vote-by-mail. 

“Congress should take action, as part of the relief measures it is considering, to fund and set minimum standards for voting procedures that would apply nationwide,” the report noted. “If the federal government does not act, state and local leaders must do so. Considering the time necessary to erect voting infrastructure which will adequately respond to COVID-19, it is essential to pursue this action immediately.”

But it will be expensive. Vote At Home, an organization that promotes mail voting, estimates it would cost $1.2 billion to convert the U.S. to all-mail voting.

Vote at Home CEO Amber McReynolds said the costs include mailing a ballot to everyone in the U.S., pre-paid postage, sorting and scanning equipment on the back-end. She also said the costs increase if the equipment is purchased for each local jurisdiction rather than at a centralized location. 

Wyman said there is one bit of positive news for states. Because of the attacks on voting systems during the 2016 election and increased funding under the Help America Vote Act, states are better prepared for disruptions. “I don’t think any of us contemplated a pandemic. I think we were thinking earthquakes and fires,” she said. “But it has positioned states and local jurisdictions to be ready. If this had happened four years ago I don’t know what we would be doing right now.”

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Max Hailperin on 03/27/2020 - 10:00 am.

    Senator Kiffmeyer is quoted both as deeming “major changes” presently unwarranted and as advocating for what can be done under “current law.” As she knows, there is a considerable middle ground between those two extremes. Even some minor changes to election law would provide election officials some more flexibility in crafting an appropriate response to unfolding events.

    To take one example, existing law (M.S. 204B.14, subd. 2) allows for combined polling places but requires a separate ballot box for each precinct in the combined polling place (at least “to the extent possible,” in case of emergency). That requirement would increase the difficulty election officials would have combining polling places and is not necessary using current technology.

    Already the “alternative procedure” for absentee voting (M.S. 203B.081, subd. 3)—the way many Minnesotans have been voting early in person, depositing their ballots into scanners rather than enclosing them in envelopes—works fine without needing a separate ballot box for each precinct. The scanner properly checks and tabulates each ballot in accordance with its own precinct (encoded on the ballot) before dropping it into the common ballot box. Later, the election officials use a high-speed central scanner to sort out the ballots from each precinct so that they are available for hand counting if needed. If the requirement for separate ballot boxes at combined polling places were dropped, the same techniques could be used.

    I’m pointing this out just as one example of a minor change that is apparent to me as an amateur. I’m sure the election officials can advise Senator Kiffmeyer much more wisely than I could regarding which changes—short of her “major changes” no-go zone—they would find helpful. I’m just offering up this one example to point out that there *is* a middle ground.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/27/2020 - 12:09 pm.

      Kiffmeyer isn’t interested in anyone’s wisdom. She has always been about making it as difficult as possible to vote.

  2. Submitted by Barry Peterson on 03/27/2020 - 12:01 pm.

    Voting by mail may not be a good alternative for all. I live in an apartment complex where the mailboxes are four inches, by four inches, by fourteen inches, The boxes require a key to get in, so the four inches by four inches is what we see when we open the box. The fourteen inches is how long the box is inward to the mailroom.

    If the documents are bent in the small mailboxes, it may lead to votes not getting counted. This is especially concerning as I receive a lot of junk mail and have had official mail bent.

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/27/2020 - 12:08 pm.

    $1.2 billion is expensive? Sounds pretty cheap to me. We are going to spend 2 trillion (2000 billions) on the federal bailout.

    • Submitted by Jimmy Kilpatrick on 03/29/2020 - 05:35 pm.

      This is just the beginning…as Pelosi continue adding pork to future bailouts we all we be ready for the slaughter.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 03/27/2020 - 02:06 pm.

    Barry has a point. Another concern, for me, is that I live alone, very rural, and with mail voting, I have to drive down the road and find someone who will verify and sign my voting materials.
    But with that said, I am for any improvement of the voting process which will counteract Republican voter suppression tactics.

  5. Submitted by Bonnie Lokenvitz on 03/28/2020 - 09:14 am.

    Has the MN legislature and the SOS corrected the problems experienced in the 2019 special election for SD11 Senator. Holiday and bad weather caused delays mail in ballots reaching the auditor in Carlton County.

    The state should have considered the Martin Luther King holiday in it’s planning. There must be contingencies for weather delaying mail deliveries.

  6. Submitted by Ron Quido on 03/28/2020 - 12:38 pm.

    The long-term goal should be online voting.

  7. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 03/29/2020 - 08:33 am.

    Why is vote by mail difficult. Everyone can do it today. It’s called an absentee ballot. No new laws or infrastructure required. Just apply for an absentee ballot application, and voila, problem solved.

    • Submitted by Max Hailperin on 03/30/2020 - 07:22 am.

      From the voter’s perspective, you are right that no new infrastructure is needed to vote absentee. (This presumes a voter for whom voting absentee is a good option, which gets into disability accommodations, availability of a witness, etc. But set that aside for a moment.) However, this doesn’t mean that the elections office doesn’t need new infrastructure to handle a vastly increased number of absentee voters. As a state, we need to solve their problem, not just yours. Because “their” problem is really *our* problem. The elections offices throughout the state are *our* way of conducting our democratic republic.

      The next issue that presents itself is what to do about the conventional polling places. If the vast majority of voters switch to absentee ballots, the polling places will be serving very few. However, even a completely unused polling place still presents considerable challenges for the election officials. It needs to be set up, staffed, and packed back up. Doing that in a time of pandemic wouldn’t be easy. Doing it in a time of pandemic while simultaneously dealing with a greatly increased number of absentee ballots would be even harder.

      The polling places aren’t just a question of abstract resources, either. The election judges who work at polling places are real people. We don’t want to be asked to spend a 15-hour day cooped up in a room with each other doing nothing but breathing each other’s air, just because you think diverting the voters we’d otherwise be serving off into absentee balloting is the only problem to solve.

  8. Submitted by Boyd Levet on 03/30/2020 - 04:06 pm.

    Here in Oregon, all voters have voted with a vote-by-mail system for 22-years in local, state and federal elections. Polling stations were eliminated, saving cost. The paper ballots are returned in sealed envelopes signed with the voters signature. It is one of the safest systems from hacking available, and eliminates long lines, long hours and the challenges for the sick and elderly. No one needs to go out election day, reducing the risks from Covid-19. Big plus here is that voter participation is among the highest in the nation. Democracy wins big with voting at home.

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