Minneapolis Elections Director Grace Wachlarowicz was already preparing for a stressful election season. A coronavirus pandemic that threatens the safety of polling places and a surge in no-excuse absentee applications driven by fears of infection will tend to do that.

Then, just before early voting for Minnesota’s primary election was to begin, she and other elections officials around the state got word that they’d be dealing with yet another wrinkle to voting in 2020: Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon agreed to waive the state’s witness requirement for absentee ballots, a decision that came out of a lawsuit seeking to ease the rules for mail-in voting.

As part of a consent decree between Simon and the plaintiffs in that suit, the Minnesota Alliance of Retired Persons, state and local elections officials are required to notify voters of the change to the witness requirement. So on Monday, Wachlarowicz gathered all the staff she could muster and began to replace the voting instructions for thousands of ballot envelopes that had already been prepared for voters.

The work was finishing Thursday as another batch of newly printed inserts arrived at the city’s elections center off East Hennepin Avenue, which was just then also being prepared to accept the first early in-person voters on Friday. There were signs encouraging masks and social distancing, sanitized pens to fill out forms, plexiglass shields separating voters from poll workers, and notifications indicating whether voting booths had been sanitized after the previous voter.

Altogether, it is a preview of what voting will look like around the state on Aug. 11, Minnesota’s primary election day, and — potentially — during the 2020 general election.

Voters on board with the switch

In response to COVID-19, the Minnesota Legislature agreed earlier this year to a compromise election bill that did not, as DFLers preferred, shift Minnesota to an all-mail election, though it did release federal and state money to promote no-excuse absentee balloting and help elections officials deal with the expected influx of mailed ballots.

The money will also allow those officials to provide more space and more sanitation at the polls. Still, the hope is that fewer voters will choose in-person voting as an option. “We are strongly encouraging vote-by-mail because that is the safest way to vote in COVID conditions,” Wachlarowicz said.

For its part, Minneapolis is planning for up to half of the city’s electorate this year to vote early or by mail, Wachlarowicz said, and up to 70 percent to vote by mail in the November general election.

So far, the application numbers have indicated that voters are on board in making that shift. As of Friday, the Secretary of State reported that 207,835 absentee ballot applications statewide had been received. That compares to 7,939 at this time in 2018 and 8,964 in 2016.

Minneapolis expects to mail out 24,000 ballots on Friday with updated guidance on the witness rules to voters who requested them earlier in the month. By comparison, the number of requests for the entire 2016 primary season in Minneapolis was 1,350.

Voters can continue to ask for a ballot right up to the election, but ballots must be postmarked by election day and be received no later than two days after election day.

That provision could mean another big change for voters, said Simon: the results of close races may not be known on election night. In all vote-by-mail states like Washington, Oregon and Utah, voters often have to wait days before final results are known, with the split of votes received by election day not always reflecting votes received later.

“This is going to be a different kind of election night,” Simon said. “We might not have a full picture. No one loves election night more than me. It is like the Super Bowl and the World Series combined. But we might not get that instant gratification that we’re used to on election night, not just in Minnesota but everywhere around the country.”

The new law also allows local officials to begin opening and processing mailed ballots and in-person early-votes 14 days before election day rather than seven days, which was the rule under the old law.

Voters who prefer to vote in person will still have the ability to do so. But polling places might be in different locations — and will certainly look different from what voters are accustomed to. The state has sent money to counties and cities to make their own preparations for the first COVID-impacted election, but it is also making a centralized purchase of masks for both election workers and voters, sanitizing spray and wipes and other supplies to foster social distancing.

Deborah Erickson, the administrative services director for Crow Wing County who chairs the elections committee of the Minnesota Association of County Officials, said her county will receive $56,000 from the state elections appropriation, a little over the average of $54,000.

“With the expectation that we are going to have additional people who are choosing to vote by mail this year, most of the offices around the state are looking at increasing staff levels to assist with that process,” she said. Her county had 400 requests for no-excuse absentee ballots during the 2016 primary season. It already has 1,600 this year.

Erickson said her office is also dealing with an increase in the number of townships that are shifting to all-mail elections, something municipalities with a relatively small number of voters can do under current law. While she mailed out 2,500 ballots to all-mail townships in 2016, she’ll be mailing out 12,000 this year.

New procedures, new political tactics

The 2020 elections will introduce new processes and protocols, but they will also spawn different politics. With half or more of the electorate voting by mail — and potentially voting up to six weeks before election day — parties, candidates and activists are having to adjust their tactics.

Simon said the state and counties are looking at a mailing to explain the vote-by-mail option to registered voters, but he is also aware that activist groups are doing the same.

“We are on notice that multiple groups, political parties and others are going to be doing that as well, sending out absentee ballots applications,” Simon said. “We’re gonna see a lot more of that.”

Ken Martin, the chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, said his party has promoted vote by mail since the current no-excuses law was passed in 2014. He said mail voters tend to be sporadic voters, but once they have a ballot in their homes, they use it 70 percent of the time.

“We put a lot of time and money into it,” he said. “It’s taken on particular importance given COVID-19 and people’s interest in having a ballot mailed to them.”

Martin said it fits into a strategy that was born when the coronavirus pandemic first hit in March. “We moved our operations into virtual organizing, and since mid-March we have been working to operate in those spaces,” Martin said.

The DFL has long had an advantage in person-to-person campaigning because of a financial lead over the state Republican party and the alignment of labor and activist groups, who can mobilize large numbers of paid and volunteer organizers. That campaigning has now shifted to phone calls, text messages and mail.

One benefit of the pandemic, he said, is that people are more willing to answer their phones and engage with texts. “People are at home, working from home, stuck at home and they long for human interaction, so they’re actually picking up their phones,” Martin said. “They’re connecting in ways we haven’t seen in some time.”

Martin said he wonders how the GOP, which has not only opposed all vote-by-mail but attacked it as open to fraud, can now advocate for its use. “If the Republicans were smart they would adopt that and realize how it could help them win elections on the ballot,” Martin said. “It’s clear the voting public really wants to vote by mail. They don’t want to risk their health to vote and it’s true of Republicans, Democrats and independents. So when your own party starts to bash the system it could end up costing you votes.”

Yet Jennifer Carnahan, the chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, said the GOP doesn’t oppose no-excuse absentee voting, noting that Republicans in the Legislature supported it in the compromise bill.

But the party does oppose shifting to all-mail elections, she said, saying it is open to fraud and abuse, not so much once ballots are mailed to election officials but because of what could happen between ballot delivery to voters and when they are sent back.

The witness requirement protects against that, Carnahan said, which is why the party intervened in another lawsuit, this one by the League of Women Voters in federal court, that also sought to waive the requirement. The state GOP was trying to vacate a consent decree similar to the deal that Simon signed in the Minnesota Alliance of Retired Persons case. And on Tuesday, the judge in the federal case ruled the decree was overly broad, since it applied equally to voters who might have fears of exposure to the coronavirus and those who can safely secure a witness signature.

And yet Simon’s office announced it is moving forward with the plan to waive the witness requirement for absentee ballots anyway.

“We will file documents to intervene,” said Carnahan. Both consent decrees only cover the primary and both cases remain active with regard to November’s general election.

Carnahan said the party is continuing to promote mail balloting, and its candidates, to voters who prefer that method. “We’re out there targeting voters, targeting voters right now because voting opens tomorrow,” she said Thursday. “We are on the ground very heavily around that in ways we haven’t in past election cycles.”

Republicans have done some in-person organizing, but they are also using phone calls and text messages to encourage GOP-leaning voters to vote early or to vote in person if that is their choice. “I strongly believe in everybody’s right to go to a poll on election day and not minimizing or restricting or reducing the number of polling locations around the state,” Carnahan said.

But she said she also supports no-excuses absentee voting as an option if people are out of state or if COVID “is still lingering” and they are in vulnerable populations such as the elderly.

Peter Callaghan covers state government for MinnPost.

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