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Scenes like this in which OHS football coach Jeff Williams addresses his players in a tightly-formed huddle might not take place anytime soon as football teams from across the state, including Owatonna, are going about their offseason routines in preparation for a fall season that hangs in the balance. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

Hwy. 14 construction marches on off the beaten path

Though work to expand Hwy. 14 between Owatonna and Dodge Center to a four-lane thoroughfare has been ongoing since the beginning of the year, those driving the Hwy. may be unaware of the work being done.

That’s because a majority of the work will likely never impact regular traffic.

“When you do work right on an existing highway it’s really apparent right away because of the milling and scrapping and peeling back of the road,” said Mike Dougherty, Minnesota Department of Transportation District 6 public affairs coordinator. “But right now everything looks relatively quiet because it’s not on any existing Hwy. 14.”

Dougherty said that the majority of construction this year will remain on county roads and other areas as the crews lay the groundwork for the new eastbound section of the Hwy.. Construction also recently began work south of Claremont on one of the bridges that will go over the new lanes of the Hwy..

“Thus far, this will be the more methodical year. Next year people will probably see more with the interchanges and overpasses as the Hwy. begins taking shape,” Dougherty said. “Unless people are traveling on some of the county and township roads south of Hwy. 14, they really might not witness much work at all.”

While the work seems to be occurring behind the curtain for the long-anticipated project, Dougherty said there are a lot of benefits to road construction that do not take place on an existing road. Specifically, he said it is a much safer operation for everyone involved.

“When you don’t have to have all those safety mechanisms up there and don’t have to worry about traffic plowing through a wok zone, it just is overall a lot safer,” Dougherty said. “And that tends to make the progress go a bit quicker, too.”

According to Dougherty, MnDOT will often work hard to keep roads open during construction projects to prevent any slowdowns and delays both for traffic and the construction progress. As of June, Dougherty said that the construction has been able to continue to run smoothly and stay on track.

“The only thing that really alters a project is weather – that’s always been a factor,” Dougherty said. “Early on we wanted to make sure that farmers who use the more local roads had contact information in case they needed to move equipment around during planting season, but we really didn’t hear much as far as difficulties for them, so we have been able to stay on schedule with everything.”

Even when the construction becomes more obvious to passersby, Dougherty said that it will still be a simple process to naturally introduce the new road to Hwy. 14 travelers.

“Traffic really won’t ever get interrupted,” Dougherty said. “Eventually it will all be a seamless detour when the new lanes open. There might be some county roads coming up later this summer that will have detours, but for a vast number of people who drive on Hwy. 14 it won’t really be a blip on the radar.”

Dougherty said he looks forward to when that transition comes into play, because unlike more public projects he feels the Hwy. 14 expansion will feel more like a grand reveal.

“I think here it will be like pulling back the curtain and having an ‘Ah-ha!’ reveal moment,” Dougherty said. “It will seem much more like a present on Christmas Day that you open up and are surprised by.”

Construction is scheduled to be completed by 2022, with traffic on the new Hwy. 14 route expected in 2021.

Minnesota waives absentee ballot witness signature mandate

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota will waive its witness requirements for absentee ballots for the statewide primary election in August under the settlement of two lawsuits sparked by the health threat from the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuits were filed by political arms of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota and the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans. A Ramsey County judge signed off on the consent decree with the retirees Wednesday while a federal judge scheduled a hearing for Thursday on the league’s case.

Republican lawmakers complained that Democratic Secretary of State Steve Simon overstepped his authority by settling. “The lawsuits and agreements are a flagrant abuse of the courts and complete runaround of the Legislature,” they said in a statement.

Under the settlements, Simon agreed that mailed-in absentee ballots for the primary will be accepted even if they don’t have witness signatures, and that ballots received within two days of the Aug. 11 primary date will be accepted as long as they’re postmarked by Election Day. Minnesota usually requires that the witness be a registered voter or notary public.

The settlements don’t apply to the November general election; the plaintiffs sought a quick answer for the primary because early absentee and in-person voting begins June 26. League spokeswoman Kayla Vix said her group is keeping the case open in case they decide to pursue it for the general election. Alliance spokesman Lisa Cutler said they’re “taking this one step at a time” and not saying whether they’ll seek a similar settlement for November.

The lawsuits were among several filed across the country in recent months over how citizens can safely cast their ballots — including at-risk older citizens who live alone and want to keep their distance from people who could expose them to COVID-19. The outcomes could affect how many people turn out to vote in elections across the country, including the presidential race. States where cases are pending include Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. The U.S. Justice Department argued Monday that Alabama’s witness requirement does not violate the Voting Rights Act.

Simon had asked the Legislature to switch Minnesota entirely to voting by mail for the primary and the Nov. 3 general election to make absentee voting easier and safer during the pandemic. But he accepted less after GOP lawmakers balked, arguing that a wholesale switch would raise the risk of voter fraud. Simon is now urging Minnesotans to take advantage of the state’s easy procedures for absentee and early voting instead.

Simon’s spokeswoman, Risikat Adesaogun, said he had no comment on the settlements because the litigation is pending. “However, it is important to note that the actions the office is taking are a common part of legal procedure,” she said.

Michelle Witte, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota, said it’s “a victory for voters across the state, especially senior voters and voters with underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to complications from COVID-19. “

Another lawsuit, on behalf of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, remains pending in state court. Those groups are asking that absentee ballots be sent to all registered Minnesota voters for the general election, and to extend the witness waiver through the general election, state ACLU spokeswoman Lynette Kalsnes said.

Republican Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, of Big Lake, a former secretary of state who chairs a committee with jurisdiction over elections, denounced the settlements as a “blatantly partisan” attempt to circumvent the Legislature that went “above and beyond” what lawmakers had approved.

GOP Rep. Jim Nash, of Waconia, the lead Republican on a House elections subcommittee, accused Simon of “colluding with a liberal organization to undermine our election laws.”

State ,Sen. Bobby Joe Champion the Minneapolis DFLer who was a lead sponsor of the bill that passed in 2009, said he continues to work on the issue. (MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan)

WANTED: Election judges amidst COVID-19 pandemic

Though many are hopeful that herd immunity will be in effect come fall, the COVID-19 pandemic is already causing uncertainty for the upcoming elections. Specifically, it is taking its toll on the polls in the form of election judges.

“Our election judges tend to be a tad bit older, so some of them are in that high risk for COVID-19,” said Heather Slechta, the assistant to the city administrator in Faribault. “We’ve had quite a few call in and say that it’s just not the right time for them to serve.”

Heading into the Aug. 11 primary, Slechta said that she is down by a minimum 10 election judges in Faribault. While they could make do with the number of judges they currently have, at roughly eight to 10 judges per polling place, Slechta said it leaves them no wiggle room if something else were to happen.

“During the last primary I actually had three or four judges who were sick,” Slechta said. “Luckily we had enough people that we didn’t have to panic or send city staff in to do election judging for the day, but that wouldn’t be the case this time. Ultimately I would like to have 12 to 15 judges at each location including the head judges.”

Slechta said that she is also anticipating the need for additional judges in both August and November because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the offering of car-side voting.

“We’re also going to have to do more cleaning and overall just need more people doing different pieces throughout the day,” Slechta said. “It’s going to look different, you’re even going to be greeted at the door and given the pen that you will need to carry with you.”

Steele County Auditor Laura Ihrke said that thus far the shortage of election judges hasn’t made its way to the area, adding that they may actually be lucky as she has received a couple phone calls from people interested in becoming an election judge.

“I haven’t heard anything from any of the townships or cities, so right now we have enough people to serve as judges,” Ihrke said. “However, we don’t know yet what everything is going to look like.”

Ihrke said that Steele County is lucky in the fact that the residents seem to be warming up to absentee and mail-in voting at a rapid rate, noting that the last election saw a record of 3,000 absentee voters. Steele County will also see its first two precincts — the city of Ellendale and Berlin Township — that will be conducting the upcoming elections as mail-in only.

“If a precinct has 400 or less voters in an election, they qualify to do mail-in ballots,” Ihrke said. “We reached out to those that qualified and these two precincts decided that they would try that option this year.”

Ihrke and Slechta both agreed that absentee voters could help reduce the risk and exposure of COVID-19 at polling places, stating that the more people who elect to vote absentee the less crowded a polling place may be.

“We already are going to have a space issue with social distancing and people standing in line, plus we will be pushing people in and out to push traffic through,” Slechta said. “We don’t ever want people to have to wait in line for an extending period of time on Election Day, but especially not now due to safety.”

Ihrke echoed Slechta’s sentiment, adding that the polling place workers will be take all precautionary steps necessary to provide protective masks and sanitizer to their judges and the voters. She said that only time will tell what the state will look like, though, as many health professionals are anticipating a second wave of COVID-19 cases to hit yet this year.

“Our job is to educate people on their choices to vote,” Ihrke said. “If they want to vote absentee we are here to help them do that. If they want to come to a polling place because that’s what they prefer, we will be open and we will do what we can to keep them safe.”

Slechta said that moving toward the elections, she will continue to seek out election judges to ensure that everyone’s civic duty to vote remains protected.“I have never had to do an emergency training on the day of the election, but I will if I have to,” Slechta said about the election judge training, which has moved in both counties to an online, two-hour format to help promote social distancing. “We have enough to get by, but it would be great to have more.”