Minnesota held its first major election of the COVID-19 era on Tuesday, and while ballots are still trickling in, the state's vaunted elections system seems to have held up well.

In Rice County, three primaries were held in order to bring the total number of candidates in each race down to two for the November ballot. Three candidates had filed for District 5 of the County Board of Commissioners and Northfield mayor, and four for District 1 of the County Board, including incumbents in each race. All three incumbents, Commissioners Jeff Docken and Jake Gillen, and Northfield Mayor Rhonda Pownell, secured enough votes Tuesday to move on to November.

District 5, which includes Erin, Forest, Morristown, Shieldsville, Warsaw, Webster and Wheatland townships along with the cities of Lonsdale and Morristown were heavily tilted in favor of the incumbent, Docken, a Forest Township farmer.

Preliminary results show Docken, who's served on the board since 2008, carrying 63% of the vote. In second place is Kim Halvorson, a Warsaw Township turkey farmer who has served on the County Planning and District One Hospital boards, with 22% of the vote.

Former Morristown Mayor Kurt Wolf appears to have been eliminated after receiving just 15%, setting up a rematch of the 2016 race between Halvorson and Docken. Then, Docken cruised to victory with over 70% of the vote.

Docken said he was highly pleased with the strong support he received across the district. He was particularly pleased the strong support he received in the southern part of the district around Morristown, where both of his challengers hail from.

"It's good to have a strong following that supports me," he said. "I think it shows that I'm doing a good job representing the district."

While she may have finished a distant second, Halvorson said she was pleased to advance to the second round and expressed hope that with additional time to campaign, as much as COVID allows, and a larger electorate, she might fare better.

"I’m very excited to move forward," she said. "I hope to be able to see an ending in November that’s very successful."

In the 1st District, which includes Bridgewater, Cannon City, Northfield, Richland, Walcott and Wheeling townships as well as the cities of Dennison, Dundas and Nerstrand and two Northfield precincts, the incumbent had a much rougher time.

The seat has been held since 2004 by Gillen, a retired farmer from Walcott Township and the board's longest serving current member. Gillen had initially expressed intentions of stepping down at this election, but decided to seek another term after the death of his wife.

In his race for a fifth term, Gillen drew challenges from financial advisor Bill McDonald of Cannon City, former union business manager Joe Adamek and longtime farmer Jim Purfeerst, a farmer and member of the Rice Soil and Water Conservation District.

Preliminary results show Purfeerst prevailing with just under half the vote in the crowded field and winning every precinct except for Nerstrand, which went to McDonald. Gillen advanced to the general election with 24% while McDonald and Adamek were eliminated after receiving 16% and 12%, respectively.

Although he's never enjoyed the landslide margins regularly racked up by other members of the board, this is the first time that Gillen has fallen behind a challenger in any of his county board races. He expressed concern at the result.

"My son told me, 'well, if you can garner the votes of the two losers, you'll have enough to win,'" Gillen said. "But it’s the first time I’ve been in this situation in all the times I ran … I'll have to figure out where to go from here."

For his part, Purfeerst was ecstatic. The lifelong Richland Township resident was quick to praise his three rivals and pledged to bring a new perspective to the board if elected in November.

"There were four great qualified candidates who ran," he said. "I’d like to thank everyone who voted for any of us, and I feel honored and privileged to have received the support that I did."

Challenging elections

Organizing a safe and orderly election amid the circumstances was certainly no easy task. In Rice County, the Property Tax and Elections Department held no fewer than eight trainings to bring election judges up to speed on election safety protocols.

On election day, the Property Tax and Elections Department spared no expense to keep voters and poll workers safe. Election judges received ample PPE, including rubber gloves, face masks and face shields as well as hand sanitizer.

Judges who are primarily seated were protected by a plexiglass shield, while those assisting with curbside voting were given full gowns. Each polling place also had a greeter at the entrance to ensure proper social distancing practices were followed.

The state's biggest ask of voters was that they not show up on election day at all, but instead vote by mail. Minnesota has had no-excuse absentee voting since 2013, and even before COVID one in four voters took advantage of the option to cast their vote that manner.

Voters answered the call. Although final figures won't be available for several more days, in total, more than 600,000 absentee ballots were requested across the state, helping Minnesota to maintain its traditionally strong turnout numbers.

Thanks to a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by, among others, local DFL State Rep. Jeff Brand of St. Peter, counties were able to begin counting early votes up to a week before the election and will be able to accept mail-in votes received on Wednesday or Thursday, so long as they are postmarked on or before Tuesday.

In comparison for the November ballot, which will include hotly contested races for President and Vice President, U.S. Senator and the state's entire Congressional delegation and state legislature, the state primary ballot was very quiet, with just one statewide race that wasn't seen as competitive - for U.S. Senate.

Both incumbent U.S. Senator Tina Smith and former Rep. Jason Lewis blew away token opposition, with Smith taking 87% of the vote and Lewis 78%. In Rice County their vote shares were even higher, with Smith at 92% and Lewis at 82%.

Just one primary race attracted nationwide attention and millions of dollars in spending. In the Fifth Congressional District, which includes Minneapolis and its inner-ring suburbs, Rep. Ilhan Omar faced a robust primary challenge from mediator and political newcomer Antone Melton-Meaux. Although Melton-Meaux significantly outraised Omar in the most recent filing period and benefited heavily from outside spending, the controversial incumbent overcame heavy criticism to win easily.

DFL voters were in a left-wing mood overall, with four established legislators, Sens. Jeff Hayden of Minneapolis and Erik Simonson of Duluth and Reps. Raymond Dehn of Minneapolis and John Lesch of St. Paul, apparently losing their seats to challengers from the left.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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