By Ann Markusen
Early this year, we had problematic elections in State Senate District 11. In the Carlton County portion alone, 400 ballots mailed to the Courthouse were not received by the primary deadline, Jan. 22, 2019. Over 100 absentee ballots arrived too late for the Feb. 5 general election, too. These special elections were required because newly elected Minnesota Governor Walz appointed the District’s standing Senator, Tony Lourey, as Minnesota’s Commissioner of Human Services. Our election officials – Auditor Paul Gassert in the case of Carlton County – followed the law. It required a quick turnaround so the Senate seat would not be left unoccupied when the Legislature convened in late January.
What happened? Many rural area voters must vote by mail, especially those in unorganized townships. Ballots went out to voters on Monday and Tuesday of the prior week. Many people in the northwestern portion of Carlton County, including my household, did not received their ballots in the mail until Friday or Saturday. With no mail on Sunday, and Monday as the national Martin Luther King holiday, hundreds of people who attempted to vote ended up disenfranchised.
Why is the mail so slow? From our Cromwell post office, for instance, first class mail now goes to Duluth, where it is then shipped to the Twin Cities area before being forwarded to local post offices in our area. It used to return directly to our post offices from the Duluth Postal Center, which closed in 2015. The advent of email, Facebook, online banking, and competition from Fed Ex and UPS has undermined the finances of the US postal service.
Many smaller communities around the state and country have faced similar mail slowdowns. Even in big cities! Recently, the Star Tribune reported on its front page that neighborhoods in Minneapolis are reporting post office deliveries a week and more later than usual. Legislators are considering changing the special election laws to take these slowdowns into account.
My husband and I used to vote at the Cromwell-Wright School. Now, even City of Cromwell voters have only the mail ballot option. Voters in some organized townships, can vote locally. A township polling place is just two-tenths of a mile from our house! But we have no option but to vote by mail.
Mail balloting is preferred by some voters. It’s good for people who can’t get to the polls easily – invalids, elderly people, those working temporarily outside of our communities or out of town. Any registered voter can request an absentee ballot for any election, though Carlton County Auditor Gassert confirms that many who are out of state in the winter or on business travel would not have been able to return their ballots in time for this recent election.
In our case, and for many others I’ve spoken with, we prefer a live polling place. Why? Several reasons. I like entering the polling place and finding that trained election judges are running the show. They do so fairly and with transparency. They answer questions and treat everyone with respect. Partisan poll watchers help ensure there is no monkey business. People who need assistance (if the voter has poor eyesight, language issues, or any confusions on offices) can request help or bring someone into the voting booth with them.
Above all, the privacy of the voting booth offers every voter what we’re entitled to – secret ballots. Most of us know, or suspect, that in some households, especially since you must ask your spouse or someone else to witness that you’ve voted, one may intimidate the other into voting his or her preferences. What if the person who picks up and delivers your rural mail knows how you vote (e.g. yard signs) and decides to toss it in the wastebasket? Most of us never check that our ballots arrive at the Courthouse.
By the way, even if your vote wasn’t counted in this special Senate race, you did get voting credit for returning a “late” ballot. This is important, because if you haven’t voted for four years, the State will purge you from the registered voters list. Voters beware!
Over past decades, and distressingly, this past year, we’ve witnessed major voter fraud in other states. In North Carolina, four people were arrested for fraudulently collecting and submitting absentee ballots in a low income, southeastern area of that state during both the 2018 primary and 2016 general elections.
In a phone interview, Auditor Gassert stated that it would not be a major problem, or costly, to restore polling places options for all Carlton County voters. The County could provide a polling place combining thinly populated townships (a.g. Carlton’s Red Clover, Eagle, Corona). The County currently pays for election equipment, the training of election judges, publications, ballot preparation and vote counting and recording. Some organized townships pay for rental space and their own election judges. Gassert estimates that restoring the local site option would be relatively inexpensive, a negligible increase in property taxes for an average household.
If we want this option, we must let our county commissioners and city and township leaders know our preferences. We can offer to help identify possible polling venues with good access and parking, as well as people willing to be trained as election officials. I, for one, volunteer!
Ann Markusen is Professor Emerita and Director of Arts Economy Initiative and Project on Regional and Industrial Economics with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.