With everything from president to school board on the ballot, November’s election could hardly have higher stakes — and it’s now less than 50 days away.
In accordance with Minnesota state law, in person early voting will commence at 8 a.m. sharp at the Rice County Government Center in Faribault, Northfield City Hall, Steele County Auditor’s office and dozens of other early voting centers across the state.
Rice County Property Tax and Elections Director Denise Anderson says she’s ready for the big day. Despite an extensive renovation to the county government building that’s not quite done, she promised that the elections office will be accessible.
Mail ballots will also start going out next week. With approximately 9,000 county residents slated to receive one, Anderson said that the office’s goal is to get a mail -n ballot in the hands of every voter who has already requested one by Oct. 1. While Minnesota has traditionally conducted its elections via in-person voting, it has offered no-excuse absentee voting to all since 2013. Pre-COVID, roughly 25% of voters took advantage of the option, a percentage that had risen slowly but steadily.
That has changed dramatically due to the pandemic. According to Steele County Auditor Laura Ihrke, of the 1,684 voters who cast a ballot in August’s primary elections, more than three-quarters opted to do so via absentee/mail-in ballot.
Under current state law, only municipalities with fewer than 400 voters are allowed to hold their elections entirely through vote by mail. Even before the pandemic, a number of small municipalities utilized that option.
In Rice County, only a small portion of Dennison had voted by mail prior to the pandemic. Afterward, Richland Township in the southeast corner switched entirely to vote by mail. All registered voters in both jurisdictions can plan on receiving a mail-in ballot without having to request one.
Pre-pandemic, five states in the country voted entirely through vote-by-mail. DFLers, including State Rep. Jeff Brand, D-St. Peter, have urged Minnesota to join them, but such bills have gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled state Senate.
With the number of absentee ballots is certain to rise, the legislature passed a Brand-backed bill that gives officials a much longer window to count them. The bill could also help local election authorities tap into funding available under the federal Help America Vote Act.
Under Brand’s bill, ballots received up to three days after the election could be counted so long as they are postmarked on or before Election Day. This year, that’s Nov. 3. That was extended to a week, in a move upheld by the Ramsey County District Court in August.
The Secretary of State’s office also eliminated a requirement that voters get a notary or witness to sign their ballot envelope. Secretary of State Steve Simon said the move will reduce the risk of voter exposure to COVID-19.
Despite the extra time, Anderson urged voters not to press their luck. While expressing confidence in the local post office, she is recommending that voters get their ballots in the mail on or before Oct. 26.
How best to vote?
Anderson said that she’s expecting additional in-person voting at the county elections office due to voter concerns about the efficacy of the postal service, particularly among Democrats. Since taking office in May, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has sparked controversy.
In July, DeJoy announced a series of controversial reforms that critics said would dramatically slow mail delivery, in particular by ending overtime pay for postal worker. According to the American Postal Workers Union, post office workers do approximately 20% of their work during overtime. At the end of July DeJoy also sent a warning to Minnesota and 45 other states, saying that a “significant risk” exists that even ballots requested in a manner consistent with election rules and returned promptly may not be received in time to be counted.
DeJoy later announced that the controversial changes would be postponed until after the election, “to avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail.” Nonetheless, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison joined in a lawsuit to stop measures which could result in delays.
According to Ellison’s office, some 10 letter sorting machines just in the Twin Cities area have been decommissioned and another 10 are slated to be. It says that already, sorting capacity has been reduced by 100,000 to 200,000 pieces of mail an hour.
As an alternative, voters can fill out their ballot at home and drop it off at the elections office, minimizing contact. Voters can request a ballot any time before the day of the election, but if they’re not registered to vote by Oct. 13 they will need to register at a voting location.
For voters who don’t live in exclusively mail-ballot precincts, voting in person is also an option. Anderson said that as at the August primary election, rigorous measures will be in place to keep voters safe. At the early voting locations, individuals who want to cast an early vote will be greeted at the door and directed to the elections area. Circles will be demarcated to help voters follow social distancing protocol.
Voters are strongly encouraged, though not required, to bring a mask and pen of their own. If a voter doesn’t bring a pen of their own, the Property Tax and Elections Department can provide a pen, which will be sanitized after use.
In general, Anderson said that in-person early voting sees light turnout, though a wave of voters could stop by Friday for the chance to be among the first to vote. When it comes to Election Day, safety protocols will be even more rigorous.
Election judges will receive rubber gloves, face masks, face shields and hand sanitizer. Judges who are primarily seated will be protected by a plexiglass shield, while those assisting with curbside voting will be given full gowns.
Each polling place will have a greeter at the entrance for crowd control. In addition to ensuring that proper social distancing procedures are followed, the greeter will be responsible for ensuring that the number of people in the polling place never reaches unsafe levels.
Anderson has said that it’s likely that some judges’ duties will consist entirely of cleaning and disinfecting all surfaces, with towels and disinfectant spray and wipes. Judges will be expected to use hand sanitizer liberally, and voters are strongly encouraged to do so as well.
A downtown wall that abutted its neighbor for more than a century is now a blank canvas. But what to do with it?
At a lengthy Tuesday evening work session, Faribault’s City Council discussed just how to best utilize a white metal wall that sits across from city hall itself.
A city-owned wall at 25/27th Third Street was created as a byproduct of the Third Street demolition project, which saw one of Faribault’s most historic but ill-maintained buildings removed in favor of downtown parking. As part of the building demolition bid, white embossed aluminum panels were selected as a temporary wall treatment. The panels were chosen because of affordability and value, and met insulation requirements.
For city staff eager to attract more businesses and traffic to downtown Faribault, the wall presented just too much potential to pass up. Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen said that with the right mural, the wall could become a true attraction.
“I can tell you that staff looks at that wall and sees nothing but opportunity,” Kuennen said. “How can we use this temporary wall as something different that we don’t have now?”
From a purely practical standpoint, staff fear that unregulated street art, graffiti or vandalism could make their way onto the wall if nothing is done. Kuennen said that frankly, she’s surprised it hasn’t become a significant problem already. But with the right mural, she said, the wall could be used to create “Instagrammable moments.” However, it’s unclear exactly how long the panels might be up, and a project could well void their warranty.
The idea of coupling Faribault’s historic downtown with murals is hardly new, as several projects have been funded through the Artists on Main Street Project. However, the new wall presents one of the largest and most well-located potential sites for art.
Councilor Peter van Sluis, who sits on the Paradise Center for the Arts’s Board of Directors, said that the city should waste no time in reaching out to nonprofits to seek potential grants. He said that more than enough funding is likely available to make the project work. As for what could go on the wall, van Sluis suggested using the mural to highlight Faribault’s international connections. The city has two “sister city” relationships, one with the much larger city of Wurzburg, Germany, and the other with the smaller Podensac, France.
The city’s relationship with Wurzburg dates back to the days following World War II and involves Brig. Gen. Lewis Beebe, a former assistant chief of staff to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who once called Faribault home.
Along with his wife, Beebe found himself stationed in Wurzburg in 1948. She was was so troubled by the poverty and destruction in the city, which had been wracked by Allied bombs in the closing days of the war, that she wrote back to her friends in Faribault for help. In return, boxcars full of donated blankets, coats and clothes for suffering residents were sent in return and the next year, a delegation of Faribaultians traveled to the city, establishing a friendship between the two cities.
In Podensac, a much smaller city in south France’s wine country, a century-old relationship was recently revived thanks to the research of Edouard LeGrand, a member of the town’s leadership who discovered old letters from a Faribault regiment. LeGrand learned that more than 100 years ago a small contingent of Faribault area soldiers celebrated the very first Armistice Day with the people of Podensac. He then reached out to the city to invite a delegation to Podensac, reigniting the long-lost relationship.
Alternatively, the city could choose to highlight its history. Councilor Jonathan Wood suggested partnering with the Heritage Preservation Commission to come up with a historically sound tribute to Faribault’s past.
Councilor Elizabeth Cap said she liked the idea, but said that the specific piece of Faribault history should be chosen with care. She liked the idea of highlighting the role in history played by women and indigenous persons, citing Alexander Faribault’s mother, Elizabeth Pelagie.
Janna Viscomi also chimed in, suggesting that the mural could highlight the history of the building demolished by the city. Once known as Columbia Hall, it served as a key gathering spot during the city’s early days.
Mayor Kevin Voracek suggested that by sticking to highlighting a piece of the city’s history, the council could be missing a big opportunity. By thinking a bit outside the box, Voracek said the city could produce a mural with much broader appeal.
“We want things that will draw people to downtown, that get them excited,” he said. “I kind of like the historical idea, but I kind of don’t… I’m not going to take an Instagram photo there and my daughter won’t stop there with all of her friends.”
The project is still in its infancy but given the strong interest, it’s likely to move ahead. Community Development Coordinator Kim Clausen said that the city is likely to start soliciting proposals in the next few weeks.
Minnesotans deployed from the Second Battalion, 135th Infantry to the Horn of Africa will receive care packages of toiletries, protein drinks and gym equipment next month.
But first, Beyond the Yellow Ribbon chapters in Faribault and Owatonna invite community members to donate these items to the cause. The Rice County and Steele County Sheriffs offices began collecting items this week, and donors have until Sept. 30 to bring in contributions.
Sarah Frazier, chair of the Owatonna Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, explained that Beyond the Yellow Ribbon works with National Guard service members throughout the state who don’t have bases. The goal of each town with an armory is to have a Beyond the Yellow Ribbon chapter, but the Owatonna group serves Steele County as well as counties without a chapter.
“Our goal is to support the service members and their family,” Frazier said. “We just want them to know that they are cared for ... that we’re here to support them, whether it’s supporting them or their families while they’re gone.”
Six major units make up the Minnesota Army National Guard Second Battalion, 135th Infantry: the Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC) in Mankato and Owatonna, A Company in West St. Paul, B Company in Rochester, C Company in Winona, D Company in Albert Lea and 1135th Combat Support Company in Faribault. Essentially, that means soldiers from across Minnesota will receive care packages through Beyond the Yellow Ribbon.
Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn said that the battalion’s army chaplain reached out to Beyond the Yellow Ribbon to request care packages for the soldiers.
“This is something new,” Dunn said of the cause. “We’ve sent some smaller care packages or assisted here and there, but this is the first time we’re taking the bull by the horns.”
The main items needed for the care packages include disposable razors, toothpaste and toothbrushes, Mio Energy or Pedialyte drink packets, individual whey protein packets, and gym equipment like bands, foam rollers and lacrosse balls. The organization also welcomes financial donations to cover the cost of shipping and additional items.
Some may wonder why gym equipment made the list, but Dunn said gym closures during the pandemic led consumers to buy more at-home workout materials. As a result, these items have become more scarce.
“Having those little things besides just their regular duties gives them something to take care of themselves with,” Dunn said.
The Rice County Sheriff’s Office collection is located in the lower lobby, which is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. After hours, donors can leave their items in the lower lobby box. The Steele County Sheriff’s Office also takes donations between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. weekdays.
Following the two-week collection period, Beyond the Yellow Ribbon volunteers will package the products and ship them to the Horn of Africa to arrive in October.