Laura Ihrke, 2020 election

Steele County Auditor Laura Ihrke runs through the 2020 ballot with a voter on Friday, another in the the record-breaking year of early voter turnout. With election offices no longer having a seven-day grace period in which ballots can be accepted, Ihrke and other election officials are warning voters to not to drop their ballots in the mail but to bring them to their county Auditor’s Office or vote in person on Election Day, Tuesday. (Annie Granlund/southernminn.com)

During a record-breaking year for early voting in Minnesota, Thursday’s appellate court decision to segregate absentee ballots received after 8 p.m. on Election Day is weighing heavy on the minds of local election officials.

“Do not put your ballot in the mail,” said Denise Anderson, Rice County auditor and election director. “If you haven’t mailed it to us yet, don’t do it – just don’t put it in the mail.”

A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that absentee ballots arriving in the seven-day grace period after Election Day in Minnesota should be separated from other ballots. It doesn’t invalidate absentee ballots that are received after Election Day, but it signals that a campaign could be successful if it challenges the validity of those ballots after the election, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said in a Friday press conference. Simon announced late Friday afternoon that he wasn’t going to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We disagree with the court’s decision, and there may be cause for litigation later,” Simon said in a statement.

A total of 1.7 million absentee ballots have been requested in Minnesota as of Friday, which Simon called “record shattering,” and more than 388,000 of them were still outstanding on Friday. He noted that historically, a large amount of absentee ballots are returned in the two to three days before an election.

“The No. 1 thing voters should know is if they have an absentee ballot in hand right now or they ordered one and it isn’t there yet or they’re about to have it in hand, do not place it in the mail. It is too risky at this point,” Simon said.

What voters should do now

Steele County Auditor Laura Ihrke said to be on the safe side, voters have one of two options: drop off their absentee ballots directly at their county auditor’s offices or show up to the polls on Election Day.

“You cannot bring your mail-in ballot to the polling place, you have to bring them to the auditor’s office by 3 p.m. on Election Day,” Ihrke said, adding that the 8 p.m. Tuesday deadline is for when the postmaster will deliver ballots already in the mail. “Stop putting them in the mail, drop them off here or vote in person.”

Voters can check the status of their absentee ballot on the Minnesota Secretary of State’s voting website, sos.state.mn.us/elections-voting. If it shows that their ballot hasn’t arrived at the county auditor’s office yet, a resident can vote in person early or on Election Day and that will cancel out their absentee ballot that’s still in the mail, Simon said.

County auditor offices will be open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday for in-person early voting and absentee ballot drop off. In-person early voting ends at the end of the business day on Monday.

Polls will be open on Election Day from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday. Residents can find their polling locations on the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website.

The seven-day extension had previously been approved in both state and federal courts due to the COVID-19 pandemic and safety concerns of people who sit in the high-risk category for contracting the virus. Ihrke said polling locations across the state are taking the pandemic seriously, implementing social distancing standards and frequent cleaning and sanitizing procedures to ensure voter safety.

“All the judges are thoroughly trained to keep everyone safe,” Ihrke said. “We just ask that voters be patient as we work hard to both keep them safe and get their votes counted.”

Unreturned absentee ballots

Anderson noted that Rice County has roughly 2,900 absentee ballots that have not yet been returned. She said the decision by the court on Thursday is unfortunate for absentee voters who have been operating under the impression that they had more time.

“For the voters I feel bad for them, I feel sad,” Anderson said. “They have been told since September that as long as they had their ballots postmarked on Election Day that it would still count, even if it took seven days to get to us. I feel bad for that, because making your vote count is what’s most important.”

In Steele County, 8,518 people have either mailed in their absentee ballots or voted early in person and about 1,000 absentee ballots were still outstanding as of Friday, according to Ihrke. That breaks the previous record of a little more than 3,000 of the 22,000 registered voters using absentee ballots in an election.

Ihrke said the average voter turnout in Steele County during presidential elections is roughly 82%, meaning nearly half of the average turnout has already submitted their votes. The case is similar in Rice County, where about 38% of the 39,500 registered voters have already voted by either absentee or in-person. Anderson said the average voter turnout in Rice County for presidential elections is about 85%, and though there is still a large number of unreturned absentee ballots, she’s not too concerned about how that could impact the results.

“I’m not nervous because you always expect that some of the ballots you mail out won’t come back,” Anderson said. “Some of these people might decide to go to the polls, so they might never come back.”

Other Election Day issues

President Donald Trump has pushed unsubstantiated claims in recent months about voter fraud occurring with mail-in ballots. In Minnesota, however, Anderson said voters shouldn’t lose sleep over the idea.

“We have the most secure system out there,” Anderson said. “With all the testing done prior to the election and the public accuracy being out there for everyone to view, plus we always have paper back up. Our system is solid.”

Ihrke agreed with Anderson, adding that the canvassing board’s audits of election results after Election Day shows the true integrity of the voting system and the steps taken to prevent fraud.

“Voting twice is a felony – you will get caught,” Ihrke said. “Don’t even try it.”

News broke earlier this week that the Minneapolis police union was searching for “poll challengers” at the request of a Trump official. Simon said state law is clear that political parties, not campaigns or candidates, can have one challenger in a polling location and that person is designated in writing. A challenger cannot come within six feet of a voter or speak to a voter, and can only challenge a voter in writing based on personal knowledge, not on hunches or guesses, Simon said.

No one who isn’t authorized to be in a polling location can come within 100 feet of a polling location, Simon said.

Simon said any voters who encounter problems with someone at a polling location on Tuesday should bring it to the attention of the election judges.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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