REGIONAL— St. Louis County elections officials are preparing for a deluge of mail-in ballots for next Tuesday’s primary election. In fact, the flood is already lapping at their feet. …
REGIONAL— St. Louis County elections officials are preparing for a deluge of mail-in ballots for next Tuesday’s primary election. In fact, the flood is already lapping at their feet.
According to Phil Chapman, the county’s elections supervisor, the county had already received over 9,200 mail-in ballots as of this past Monday, with eight days to go until the Aug. 11 primary.
Normally, they would have received about 1,500 ballots by now, said Chapman, and the previous record was 3,600 at this point in the election process.
“We’re a little crazy right now,” said Chapman.
St. Louis County is not alone. Statewide, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon reports that Minnesotans had submitted more than 550,000 absentee ballot requests as of the end of July, with 11 days to go until the primary. At this same point in 2016, election officials had received about 25,000 such requests.
The shift to voting by mail has been prompted by public health concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Particularly in urban areas, where voters are often required to wait in long lines to cast their ballots, voters are turning to the mail as a safer and more convenient alternative to in-person voting. Indeed, nearly half of the absentee ballot requests made to date have come from Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis and its suburbs.
This year, because of the pandemic, Secretary of State Simon has made it easier for people to vote by mail, having waived the requirement for a witness signature, which has made voting by mail less inconvenient for those who live alone. Simon is also allowing county election officials to begin processing their mail ballots two weeks ahead of the election, rather than the usual one week.
St. Louis County officials are preparing for the onslaught by deploying county workers from other departments to help process the mailed ballots. In St. Louis County, mailed ballots come in two types— absentee ballots for which voters must fill out an application, and regular mail-in ballots for sparsely-settled parts of the county where there are no local polling places.
Thousands of St. Louis County residents have used mailed ballots for years, notes Chapman, without incident. He said that’s true for many rural counties in the state where, in some cases, more than half of the ballots cast come by mail.
Mail voting has been largely non-controversial for years, but that’s changed in recent months after a campaign by President Trump to discredit mail-in ballots, which he claims, without evidence, provide an easy opportunity for organized fraud. Attorney General William Barr, also without evidence, recently suggested that foreign countries could forge large numbers of mail-in ballots to try to tilt the election one way or another.
Chapman, who is intimately familiar with mail-in balloting, said that would be virtually impossible given the many checks in place. For one thing, he notes, the labels that election officials affix to the mail-in envelopes they send out to voters have a unique bar code that they cross-check as part of the review of each ballot that comes by mail.
“They would have to somehow forge a bar-code with the correct information and forge a signature envelope,” said Chapman. “We would detect those differences.”
What’s more, he said, county election officials keep track of the number of ballots they send out. If more came back than what they sent out, they would know that immediately. “As far as Minnesota, there are a huge number of checks and balances in place that would prevent fraud,” said Chapman.
Those checks are virtually the same, notes Chapman, regardless of whether a mailed-in ballot is from a regular vote-by-mail voter or an absentee voter. “With mail balloting, everyone who is a registered voter, we physical mail them a ballot,” said Chapman. “To vote absentee, they have to fill out an absentee ballot application. That’s the biggest difference.”
Those who vote by mail do have additional steps they must take. The ballot comes with three separate envelopes. A brown manila envelope in which the voter inserts their ballot, is known as the secrecy envelope. It’s unmarked and once it’s added to the balloting system there’s no way to connect the name of the voter to the ballot they’ve cast.
The secrecy envelope is placed inside a signature envelope, which the voter must fill out with their address, driver’s license number or last four digits of their Social Security number, and sign attesting that they are qualified to vote. The signature envelope goes into a larger envelope for mailing to county offices.
“It’s a lot of paperwork,” acknowledges Chapman.
But that paperwork all has a purpose, he notes, which is to ensure the integrity of the system. Once a mail-in ballot packet arrives at the county office, election officials open the outer envelope and review the signature envelope to make sure the information is consistent with county records, assuming the voter is already registered. If they are not registered, the voter will need to submit a voter registration form along with their ballot. If there are discrepancies, or errors in any of the paperwork, county officials contact the voter to let them know they need to take additional steps for their vote to count. If not, the signature envelope is opened and the ballot, still in its secrecy envelope, is added to the pile of ballots approved for counting. Once a voter has voted by mail, their name is checked off on the official voter list, so they won’t be allowed to vote a second time, by showing up at the polls on Election Day.
This Tuesday’s primary election will be a good dry run for county officials, to help them gauge their staffing requirements for processing all the additional mail-in ballots. Statewide, turnout for the primary looks like it may be extremely high, according to election officials. In a normal primary, about 25-30 percent of voters cast ballots. That’s a far cry from the 80 percent that turn out in Minnesota for a typical general election, but it should be enough to help election officials get a taste for what’s to come in November. Even so, Chapman wants Tuesday to run smoothly. “It’s a good test run, but it’s one that we don’t want to make mistakes on,” he said.