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 started Friday morning 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.

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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