Minnesota voters can skip the ballot booth and vote early
ST. PAUL - Minnesotans no longer need a good excuse to vote early.
Starting with next week's primary, voters don't have to provide any justification for submitting a ballot before Election Day.
Supporters of the change passed by the Legislature in 2013 say it will increase access to voting and could increase voter turnout by allowing voters to request an absentee ballot or cast ballots at their county's election center.
For years, Minnesotans could only vote early if they could provide a legally valid excuse, such as being outside of the district on Election Day. Dropping that requirement is one of the biggest changes to Minnesota's election system in years -- and the candidates and political parties are trying to capitalize on it.
"We have it right on our voter card," said former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert said. "We put our thumb on there and say you can vote early at the courthouse."
Seifert, one of four Republicans seeking the party's nomination for governor, is quick to tell voters they can cast their ballots before the Aug. 12 primary. As he greeted voters at the Anoka County Fair, Seifert tried to persuade potential supporters to take advantage of the new law.
"You can vote early at the government center now," he said. "Sneak in and vote early if you want."
Seifert said his campaign staff organized a vote early event at an assisted living facility. They also convinced a group of younger voters to vote absentee in Lyon County.
"Those are all first-time voters so those are people that in are not in the polling data," he said. "They're not the type of folks that people are thinking about but we’re locking those votes in."
With such uncertainty over how many votes it will take to win in a primary that is expected to have a low turnout primary, all of the GOP gubernatorial candidates are trying to lock in as many votes as they can as early as they can.
Businessman Scott Honour said many voters don't know about the primary.
"We got a positive response," Honour said, "from people who said 'I'm busy. I'm working. I might be out of town. I don't know. It's good to know that I have that chance to vote.'"
But even though the political parties and the campaigns were expecting a surge in absentee voting as a result of the new law, the numbers aren't yet bearing that out.
According to the Secretary of State's office, the number of absentee ballots returned and accepted this year is fewer than those returned before the 2010 gubernatorial primary.
State Rep. Kurt Zellers, who also is running for governor, said some voters have told him they prefer the more traditional way of casting a vote.
"There are still a lot of them who say 'No, I know I can vote early but I want to go in there and I want to vote in the ballot box,'" said Zellers, a former House speaker.
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the GOP's endorsed candidate for governor, said he is relying on the backing of the party to help him turn out the vote. Johnson said the party has been active in contacting voters and encouraging them to vote absentee.
"While the party maybe isn't quite to the place it was six or eight years ago, the party is doing pretty well and they have a really strong statewide plan to help endorsed candidates in the primary," he said.
Republican Party Chair Keith Downey acknowledged that the GOP isn't attracting as many absentee voters as Democrats did in 2010. But he said DFL candidates spent more money on the race that year.
Downey said Republicans will have a robust absentee ballot campaign for the upcoming general election.
Democrats also are using the primary to test their absentee ballot campaign, DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said.
Martin said the effort will help his party identify and turn out DFL voters who normally wouldn't vote in an off-year election.
"This new tool allows us to essentially bank votes early and take those people off of our list and not have to spend any more time, energy or money chasing their vote," he said.
Martin also said the parties will be able to learn which voters returned an absentee ballot -- giving them a greater ability to determine who they need to lobby to vote before Election Day.
The Secretary of State's office encourages voters to request an absentee ballot and check its status at mnvotes.org.