As COVID-19 continues to ravage the state, officials in Minnesota’s 87 county election offices are preparing to organize an election like never before.
Early voting for Minnesota’s primary elections is set to begin on Friday. Held on Aug. 12, the primary will have a notable lack of competitive races — a stark contrast to 2018, when both major parties had competitive races for governor, U.S. senator and other statewide races.
This year, most southern Minnesota voters will see just one race on the ballot — that for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Sen. Tina Smith. Both Smith and her Republican-endorsed challenger, former U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, face only nominal primary challenges.
The primary itself may be a snoozefest, but it will give local election officials a dry run to practice safely running an election amid the pandemic. That’s sure to come in handy in the fall, when the presidency, Smith’s U.S. Senate seat, all members of Congress and the entire state legislature will be on the ballot.
Rice County Property Tax and Elections Director Denise Anderson said that in Faribault, the setup for early voting will be different this year not only due to COVID, but also due to the County Government Center’s recently completed expansion.
In past years, voters at the government center came behind the counter to cast an early vote at a secure and private voting booth. This year, they’ll have a room of their own to vote in, reducing the amount of contact with the work area of county elections officials.
Rice County voters can also vote at Northfield City Hall. At both 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.
Steele County Auditor Laura Ihrke said that 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, a pen will be provided, and will be sanitized after use.
Instead of going to the polls or to the courthouse to cast an early vote, Anderson and Ihrke strongly urged voters to request an absentee ballot. While Minnesota elections have typically taken place mostly on election day, the state has allowed no-excuse absentee voting since 2013.
According to Ihrke, a significant number of Steele County residents have already requested absentee ballots for the primary, even though there’s no contested county or municipal races on the ballot, just the aforementioned U.S. Senate race. She expects much higher demand for the Nov. 4 general election.
In recent years, about 1 in 4 Minnesotans have taken advantage of early and absentee voting. That number is expected to skyrocket this year, with a record number of requests already received by the Secretary of State’s office.
In order to run an in-person election, the state traditionally employs a large number of poll workers. Under state law, employers are required to provide employees time off to work as a poll worker, so long as the employee provides at least 20 days notice.
Still, a disproportionate number of poll workers are older and thus particularly vulnerable to COVID. Many of them have already indicated to local election officials that they aren’t comfortable working this election.
Secretary of State Steve Simon is strongly encouraging Minnesotans of all ages to sign up to work as poll workers. While the job won’t be risk free, a bill co-authored by Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, has helped to secure millions in funding for election safety measures.
Thanks in part to that funding, county elections departments are planning unprecedented investments in Personal Protective Equipment for election workers, cleaning supplies and voter outreach efforts to encourage absentee voting.
The bill could lead to significant delays in vote counting, preventing the media from calling close races on election night. Counties haven’t been given permission to release incomplete absentee ballot results, so only election day results will be available initially.
Still, Simon said that to ensure voter safety, the said the state needs to find a way to reduce the voter to polling place ratio, which currently sits at roughly 1,000 to 1 statewide. The most important thing voters can do to help accomplish this goal is simple — vote by mail.
In a handful of small towns and rural townships, no polling place will be open on Election Day — instead, absentee ballots will be mailed to all voters. Voters who don’t live in one of those municipalities can request an absentee ballot online or mail a request to the county elections office.
In order for the vote to count, it must be received through the mail by Election Day or dropped off at the county elections office by 3 p.m. Voters can track the status of their absentee/mail in ballot via the state’s online Voter Information Portal at pollfinder.sos.state.mn.us.
Before the end of the school year, second-graders at McKinley Elementary weren’t only studying from home — they were working from home, creating a magazine full of facts about Minnesota animals.
Their work, which had been imagined as a project for a magazine like youth-focused Highlights, even garnered the attention of that international publication’s leadership team. Just before the end of classes in June, students were able to watch a video greeting from Highlights’ editor-in-chief and its CEO, praising the project.
“I wanted to take this opportunity to record this video to acknowledge what you guys are doing and to congratulate you on such a wonderful project,” said Kent Johnson, whose family launched the magazine over 70 years ago. “I know it must be difficult to have transitioned from being in school to trying to learn and work in this virtual environment.”
The difficulty of keeping students engaged during distance learning was one of the reasons why the second-grade team initially decided to create a magazine. In moving online, teachers had divided their work up by subject area, and Valerie Seath was the teacher who created videos and lessons around reading and writing.
Coming up on the end of the year, one of the last units for second graders was nonfiction writing. In the past, students had done biographies or handwritten research reports to share in class with their peers. This year, Seath and her colleagues decided to try something that would lend itself more easily to the digital sphere — an online magazine.
After having students choose an animal, Seath created a template for the magazine which she then gave students the ability to edit. Each page was marked with a child’s name and animal, beneath which they were asked to with insert subtitles, text, photos and captions.
‘Connection to the real world’
Another way that Seath tried to make it engaging for students, and what ultimately drew the attention of Highlights, was by writing a client letter to each class. In order to frame the assignment as a real-world problem, she wrote from the perspective of a magazine, asking students to submit their pieces on an animal of their choosing.
“We are at a STEAM school — I’m taking my STEAM certification right now and one of the things we do is we come up with a client letter. You make a connection to the real world for students so it seems as if they’re working on a project that people do every day in their jobs,” said Seath.
An acronym for “science, technology, engineering, art and math,” STEAM is an educational approach that focuses in large part on interdisciplinary and real-world learning.
According to fellow second-grade teacher Kate Seifert, having students choose an animal to write a one-page article on also fit in nicely with the school’s STEAM focus. It’s typically a topic that children are excited to work around, and during the pandemic there were also a number of new online resources from zoos and wildlife centers for learners to take advantage of.
“There were so many virtual field trips available from zoos around the country, there were so many free resources out there for kids,” added Seifert.
In keeping with STEAM’s interdisciplinary approach, Seath also encouraged her students to choose animals from Minnesota, so they might even be able to see their subject when studying from home.
Her own daughter, Ari, happens to be in second grade this year and chose to research robins. In large part, the writing project focused on using different text elements common in nonfiction work — bullet points, bold text, headlines, captions and photos, which was Ari’s favorite part.
“I have a lot of robins in my backyard and my grandma likes them,” she said, of her reason for choosing the bird. “My favorite part was taking the photos. I tried to take pictures and I was sneaky, but they just flew away.”
For her final report, Seath said Ari even went outside and tried to get a robin live on video for her classmates to see.
“She went outside with her computer, and I of course was teaching at that same exact time, so I didn’t even know she did that until afterward,” Seath laughed.
Practicing digital publishing
Because the magazine was compiled during distance learning, Seifert says that students had to practice a range of new technology skills in completing their articles. Each class had its own magazine with a shared template. Second-graders could log into their class website, find the template and insert their text and photos on the page with their name.
“Usually they would write out their project and make their own book out of paper,” added Seifert. “Distance learning encouraged us to type it — they were searching for pictures online, and searching for fonts.”
In the end, articles ranged from a list of bullet point facts to paragraphs of writing. Each page was also complete with captioned photos and sources at the bottom for the websites children used to learn about their animal.
“We provided some supports, like good websites for their research,” said Seifert. “They didn’t just get to copy down the author’s words. They had to read them and make them their own.”
After seeing how students responded to the project and how hard they worked on their articles, Seath wrote a letter to Highlights praising McKinley’s second-graders and bringing attention to their work. Ultimately, Highlights wrote back and created a personalized video greeting for the students entitled “Great Job, McKinley Elementary.”
One of the things Seifert said she enjoyed most about the magazine project and the response from Highlights was hearing from editor-in-chief Christine French Cully about her own path to writing. Cully shared with students that she had filled notebooks with stories and poems as a child, which eventually helped her decide to enter the field.
“Whatever you decide to do, it will be very important to learn to write well, so I’m glad that you’ve done this project,” she said.
About $4.4 million earmarked specifically for Steele County is sitting in limbo at the state Capitol.
During Wednesday’s Steele County Board of Commissioners meeting, commissioners discussed how the legislative special session failed to pass a bill that would allocate the federal funding known as the CARES Act to the different municipalities across the state.
“This is funding from Congress sent to the state to pass through to local governments to help with costs and expenses accrued during COVID-19,” said County Administrator Scott Golberg. “The state has the ability to add any additional parameters and add to the funding as they see fit, but unfortunately nothing did happen in this special session.”
According to Golberg, the CARES Act would provide Steele County — not including the individual townships and cities — with roughly $4.4 million to aid with various expenses and hardships brought on by the public health pandemic. Commissioner Greg Krueger said that Steele County and Owatonna’s funding combined totals about $6.6 million.
“It was and is a potential source to help with some of our costs,” Golberg said, adding that there is a chance that a bill could still be passed in a second special session later this summer. “We would also like to look at how we can utilize some of that funding for our businesses and local economic support.”
Last week before the special session ended, the Minnesota Senate passed 62-4 a bipartisan bill that would help disperse the $841 million received through the federal program. The bill had the appropriation split roughly 55% to counties and 45% to cities and townships over a certain population. The bill also would have required the funding to be distributed by June 30 and for county governments to return funds unspent by Dec. 1 to the Department of Revenue. In the Senate bill, at least 10% of county allocations must be spent on economic/business assistance.
“The bill got hung up in the House as additional things were tacked on and it stalled,” Golberg said.
Krueger encouraged the public to put pressure on the Minnesota House of Representatives to get a bill passed in an upcoming special sessions, noting that now is the time to contact local representatives and have their voices be heard.
“I call on the Chamber and on other people to hitch on to that wagon and get this passed,” Krueger said. “We need to make a push to the House. This is something that will really help all the citizens of Minnesota, not just Steele County.”
Commissioner Jim Abbe echoed Krueger’s comments, also imploring that all elected officials personally reach out to representatives and encourage them to pass the bill. Krueger said that he believes that attention could also be focused on the Speaker of the House, Rep. Melissa Hortman (D-Brooklyn Park).
Also during the board meeting, the commissioners unanimously passed the reopening plan for Steele County. Though county facilities reopened on June 1, the commissioners took official action in approving the safe reopen plan that follows the guidelines from Gov. Tim Walz’s Executive Order 20-56. The plan lays out guidelines for cleaning/sanitization, traveling and health screening of visitors.