As COVID-19 continues to ravage the state, officials at 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.

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.

Instead of going to the polls or to the courthouse to cast an early vote, Anderson 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. 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.

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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