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Minneapolis’ Election Day filled with hitches and glitches

Despite early indications to the contrary, city turnout ended up higher than in 2008.

Voters lined up in Minneapolis on Election Day 2012.
MinnPost photo by Joel Kramer

The 2012 election should have gone off without a hitch in Minneapolis.

For starters, the city clerk and his staff studied turnouts from the last two elections following redistricting, and they looked at the last three presidential elections and they monitored absentee voting beginning in September.

All of their research indicated turnout would be smaller than in 2008 when 71 percent of the city’s eligible voters cast ballots.

They were prepared for a 71 percent turnout, but what they got was 81 percent, or 2l5,804 voters.

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That’s the largest turnout since 1944, when Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey were on the presidential ballot. The 1944 election holds the city record for voter turnout at 90 percent.

The day before the election, City Hall was transformed into the biggest polling place in Minneapolis with extra staff and extra hours to help absentee voters cast ballots.

 In 2008, some 1,000 voters had turned out the day before the election. This year’s stepped-up effort attracted 220 voters, which seemed to confirm the prediction of a lower turnout.

But when the polls opened at 7 a.m. on Election Day, there were already lines forming, some of them long. Some precincts never got caught up.

 Long lines were just the beginning of the problems:

• There were ballot-counting machines that didn’t work.

• There were ballots that couldn’t be run through the machines and had to be hand counted.

• And there were not enough people at City Hall who could drop everything and solve problems.

• The final blow came with malfunctioning pens that had been purchased for the polling places.

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“We had our share of challenges on Election Day,” City Clerk Casey Carl told council members Monday.

Redistricting — and the drawing of new precinct boundaries — reduced the number of polling places from 131 in 2008 to 117, saving the city an estimated $30,000. Of the 117 polling places, only seven were new to voters.

A new polling place at Watershed Charter High School in the 8th Ward was “an uphill battle,” Carl said, recommending that it be changed before the 2013 election. Watershed was the only new polling place that reported problems

In some of the precincts with long lines, election judges went outside to tell people waiting to vote of the problems. Overall, the average number of judges assigned to a polling place in 2012 was higher — 14, compared with 11 in 2008.

Casey said that the large number of Election Day registrants — 50,668 voters, about 25 percent of the votes cast — was one of the reasons for the long lines. Some Election Day registrations took only a matter of minutes, while others – particularly some requiring language assistance, for example — took considerably longer.

Absentee ballots, a total of 15,143, represented 7 percent of the total votes cast in Minneapolis.  In other years, the absentee ballots have been shipped to the relevant precincts to be counted after the polls close, along with those ballots cast on Election Day.

But this year, for the first time, those ballots were transported to the processing center operated by Hennepin County where the large ballot counting machine was not functioning. Instead the ballots were fed into smaller counting machines that took longer to complete the count.

Council Member Lisa Goodman complained that there were no election results from Minneapolis until after midnight.

“Other cities figured it out,” said Goodman, noting that St. Paul had election results available by 9 p.m.

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“We were not prepared to handle the absentee ballots we received,” said Carl, who also explained that the staff at City Hall assigned to process the absentee ballots was deployed on other emergencies, which also slowed down the process.

Carl and his staff are suggesting that Minnesota drop the absentee balloting system that requires the voter to state why they cannot cast their vote in Minnesota on Election Day. Only 15 states, including Minnesota, require a reason for their absence. Many states offer early voting with no reason required.

Council members voted to require that all polling places in the city be reviewed and to allow additional precincts to be created or to establish more than one polling place in a precinct.

They also voted to require staff to work with Hennepin County on the purchase of new voting machines by 2013 and require budget estimates for the elections in 2014 and 2016.

They also will be investigating the possibility of training and hiring more city staff as election workers in years to come. Currently, city staffers are encouraged to serve as election judges and receive pay for those duties, with an adjustmnet to prevent them from being paid twice for one day of work.