While the presidential election this year grabbed headlines daily, there was no shortage of compelling election-related news coming out of the Brainerd lakes area in 2020.

In February, Crow Wing County Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson thought the presidential nominating primary — the first occurring in the state in nearly 30 years — would be the greatest organizational challenge of the year. That changed as it became clear the coronavirus pandemic would force alterations to how the county would conduct elections in August and November.

Jen and Jay Avery, along with their sons Taylor and Blake, work with head judge Katie Kaufman Tuesday, Nov. 3, to receive their ballots at the Essentia Health Sports Center in Brainerd. The lobby of the civic center was filled with election workers and voters on Election Day. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Jen and Jay Avery, along with their sons Taylor and Blake, work with head judge Katie Kaufman Tuesday, Nov. 3, to receive their ballots at the Essentia Health Sports Center in Brainerd. The lobby of the civic center was filled with election workers and voters on Election Day. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

By May, township boards across the county voted to keep town hall doors closed for in-person voting, opting instead to utilize mail balloting this year in response to COVID-19 concerns. A total of 11 precincts made the change for 2020, joining 18 others already conducting elections by mail. This included the three precincts of Unorganized Territory, which is the third-largest population center after Brainerd and Baxter in the county — a decision of the Crow Wing County Board.

RELATED: Election 2020: Differences between absentee vs. mail-in ballots

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At the time of those decisions, the number of COVID-19 cases in the county was below 50, but the actions taken to prepare for the November elections turned out to be prescient as that month saw a dramatic rise in numbers and hospitalizations. Crow Wing County processed the most absentee and mail ballots the county has ever recorded, while in-person locations sported the now-familiar Plexiglas, masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing in play. Ultimately, 2020 brought the highest number of voters to ever participate in an election, both nationally and in Crow Wing County, too.

RELATED: Crow Wing County sets record voter turnout

When it came to the ballots themselves, at least three high-profile local races saw unusual twists and turns ultimately producing hard-fought write-in candidacies.

At 7 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3, voters stream into the Mission Town Hall to vote on Election Day. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
At 7 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3, voters stream into the Mission Town Hall to vote on Election Day. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Two Crow Wing County Board seats were up for election this year, those held by Commissioner Paul Koering and Commissioner Doug Houge. Both ran unopposed four years earlier, but this year would be different. When the candidate filing period closed in May, Houge learned he was destined for a primary election with two opponents — Michael Starry of Ironton and Tom Nixon of Deerwood — seeking to replace the District 5 incumbent.

The primary whittled the field to Starry and Houge, but Nixon vowed to continue his campaign despite a third-place finish. He ultimately garnered 520 votes in the general election, just 18 fewer votes than the margin between the victorious Houge and challenger Starry.

Ellie Cash casts her vote Tuesday, Nov. 3, at the Fort Ripley Town Hall. Tables along with voting booths were used to distance voters on Election Day. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Ellie Cash casts her vote Tuesday, Nov. 3, at the Fort Ripley Town Hall. Tables along with voting booths were used to distance voters on Election Day. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

While Koering at first faced no opponents, his decision to publicly throw his support behind Starry in Houge’s district, among other controversial comments and positions the former Republican state lawmaker recently made, inspired a write-in candidacy by Arlene Jones in District 1. Jones, a local foods advocate and founder of Sprout MN, went all in on the campaign with educational efforts on how to submit a write-in vote, campaign signs, mailers and even a billboard. But the uphill climb of a write-in candidacy left her well short of any serious challenge to Koering, who earned 5,244 votes to Jones’ 670.

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The third local race falling outside the norm this year was the one for Baxter City Council. After the August filing period closed for local candidates, one name was noticeably absent — Todd Holman, who’d been on the council for 13 years. Just one person, council member Mark Cross, filed to run for two open seats on the council. In the weeks that followed two write-in contenders emerged, providing three options to Baxter residents. Former DFL state legislator John Ward and Lon Schmidt, a part-time bus driver for the Brainerd School District and former radio host, both made public announcements of their candidacies for the council. After Election Day, Ward emerged victorious.

RELATED: Baxter City Council: Cross and Ward are top vote-getters

Across the county, a number of incumbents in city government will return to private life after losing to challengers. Five incumbent mayors fell to opponents: Breezy Point Mayor Tom Lillehei to Todd Roggenkamp, Emily Mayor Roger “Buddy” Lund to Tracy Jones, Fifty Lakes Mayor Linda Steffens to Steve Dahlke, Pequot Lakes Mayor James Tayloe to Tyler Gardner and Nisswa Mayor Fred Heidmann to John Ryan. The Nisswa mayoral race saw by far the largest margin of victory for a challenger, with Ryan besting Heidmann 1,174 to 183 — a 991-vote margin.

Voters wait Tuesday, Nov. 3, in the parking lot of Lord Of Life Lutheran Church in Baxter for their turn to vote on Election Day. Limitations on the number of people allowed inside because of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the lines to spill outside of the polling place. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Voters wait Tuesday, Nov. 3, in the parking lot of Lord Of Life Lutheran Church in Baxter for their turn to vote on Election Day. Limitations on the number of people allowed inside because of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the lines to spill outside of the polling place. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Other notable incumbents not returning in 2021 include Brainerd School Board member Sue Kern, who placed fourth in a three-seat race, and Brainerd City Council members Jan Lambert and Wayne Erickson, replaced by newcomers Mike O’Day and Tiffany Stenglein, respectively.

It wasn’t all about new faces, however. The 2020 election featured a comeback victory of note when James Hunter received the most votes in a field of four mayoral candidates in Crosby. Hunter resigned from the role in 2017 amid legal troubles before running and losing for the seat in 2018. Acquitted of all charges he faced, Hunter threw his hat in the ring again in 2020 and this time, he won.

RELATED: 2019 Top 10 Stories: No. 10 — Former Crosby mayor’s court case is closed, but lawsuit pending

Finding candidates willing to run for township boards is a long-standing challenge noted by local officials, and this year proved no different. The majority of township elections featured unopposed candidates, while some voters had no candidates to choose from at all for various seats. Town supervisor posts in Irondale and Platte Lake and two seats in Perry Lake Township were awarded to write-ins, along with town clerk positions in Platte Lake, Ross Lake and Timothy townships. In the city of Cuyuna, no one filed for two seats on the city council.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.