Election judge

Election judge Judith Barnes assembles packets of absentee ballots Tuesday that will be mailed out at the Stearns County Service Center for the upcoming November election. (Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News)

This year will mark the fourth time Dennis Fude will cast his vote for U.S. president on a ballot that has shown up in the mail at his home in rural Blue Earth County.

Before moving to Beauford Township 13 years ago, Fude always voted in person. But now, he said, he likes getting his ballot by mail and avoiding the hurried rush of the polling booth on Election Day.

“There’s always some local officials and judges that you really don’t know much about,” Fude said. “It gives us time to Google them and see what they say and where they stand on things.”

Voting by mail has been a hot topic of debate during this year’s election campaign, since President Donald Trump claimed — without evidence — that it’s ripe for fraud. But in some places in Minnesota, voters have been casting their ballots exclusively by mail for years, with few reported problems.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, many voters are receiving early ballots this year. In Minnesota, any voter can request an absentee ballot without having to give a reason.

But about 220,000 Minnesota voters live in places where ballots are mailed to all registered voters before every election. State law allows nonmetro townships and small cities with fewer than 400 registered voters to opt for voting exclusively by mail.

Mail-only voting has existed in Minnesota since the late 1980s — and tends to be popular with voters who are accustomed to it, said Risikat Adesaogun, deputy communications director for the secretary of state’s office.

“They like it, they trust it,” she said. “And all they have to do is make sure that their voter registration information is up to date.”

As with absentee voting, there are safeguards to prevent fraud with mail ballots, Adesaogun said. Voters are asked to sign their ballot and provide identifying information, and a ballot board verifies every ballot.

“It isn’t quite as simple as a blank ballot just floating around out there,” she said.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic led to more cities and townships choosing to vote by mail. Some don’t have polling places large enough to allow social distancing. Others worried about finding enough poll workers, who tend to be older and more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Six years ago, Stearns County in central Minnesota had no precincts that voted exclusively by mail. This year, there are 31 — about a third of the county’s precincts.

County elections director Dave Walz said when a city or township decides to switch to mail-only voting, it usually sparks questions, and sometimes opposition. But Walz said most people wind up liking the convenience.

“The more mail ballots we do, the higher the turnout gets, because people participate more,” he said. “People want to go to polling places and they’re adamant about it. But the reality is, the turnout’s better in mail-ballot precincts.”

Walz said mail-only voting tends to work best in cities and townships with older and more stable populations, where the list of registered voters doesn’t change much from year to year.

In Collegeville Township, west of St. Cloud, officials decided to move one of the township’s two precincts to mail-only voting this year. Township supervisor Craig Guggenberger said the pandemic has made it difficult to find enough election judges and get them trained online in time for the election.

“The majority of the residents are not in favor of it,” he said. “But once we had a discussion and explained to them the situation, most of them are somewhat understanding.”

Voters in Collegeville Township’s second precinct will cast their ballots at their usual polling place at St. John’s University, because many are college students who need to register before they can vote, Guggenberger said.

There wasn’t much pushback from voters in the city of Brooten in western Stearns County when the City Council decided to switch to all-mail voting earlier this year. Mayor Larry Putz said they had health and safety concerns about poll workers and voters.

“We have a good number of … senior citizens in town. In fact, we’ve got one that just turned 99, and we’ve got a number in their 90s,” Putz said. “It’s easier for them to just get it in the mail and mail it back.”

In Cass County, north of Brainerd, more than two dozen of the county’s precincts have been voting by mail since the mid 1990s with few complaints or problems, said elections administrator Pamela Smith. Since then, the number has grown, and it jumped by another 14 precincts this year.

“We definitely have a mixed reaction,” she said. “Some people love the fact that their precinct has opted for the mail ballot process, and some don’t like it.”

Smith said it helps when they tell voters they have multiple options for how to return their ballot. They still can vote in person or drop off their ballot themselves at their county election office. Some counties have added secure drop boxes or drive-through lanes.

Voters also can go to the secretary of state’s website — mnvotes.sos.state.mn.us/AbsenteeBallotStatus.aspx — and track their ballot to make sure it arrived.

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