Crow Wing's Unorganized Territory likely to vote by mail this year
Although commissioners do not vote at committee of the whole meetings, the four in attendance indicated support for voting by mail — provided the resolution limit it to this year only.
Voters in Crow Wing County’s third largest population center will likely cast their ballots exclusively by mail this year due to ongoing concerns with the coronavirus.
Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson recommended Tuesday, April 21, county commissioners make that change in the First Assessment District — also known as Unorganized Territory — for the 2020 election cycle. The county board acts as the township board for the area north of Brainerd and Baxter, stretching from Woida Road north to Cinosam Road and east from the Crow Wing/Cass county line to Merrifield. It’s home to about 5,500 residents, 3,777 of which are registered voters.
“I would recommend that you consider voting by mail for this election cycle,” Erickson said during the board’s committee of the whole meeting. “I think that it will allow the voters confidence that their right to vote isn’t going to be impacted by their health concerns or other concerns they may have about going to a crowded polling location.”
Voting is spread across three precincts in Unorganized — the Red Precinct votes at Crow Wing Power, the White Precinct at Living Word North church and the Blue Precinct at The Church on Wise Road. Erickson said both church locations are large enough to accommodate social distancing, but the “very tight space” at Crow Wing Power presents challenges.
The electrical co-op offered its warehouse space in lieu of the small interior room typically used as a polling location, but Erickson explained a number of additional steps would be required to prepare this site. These steps include renting bathroom facilities and hand-washing stations for election judges, fans should a primary election take place in August, and additional signage.
Although commissioners do not vote at committee of the whole meetings, the four in attendance indicated support for voting by mail — provided the resolution limits it to this year only. Commissioner Doug Houge was not present Tuesday.
“If things aren’t looking up by then, we have to do this,” said Commissioner Rosemary Franzen, who represents 82% of Unorganized Territory. “I don’t want this to be a permanent change.”
Erickson told the board state law requires changes to voting be made 90 days prior to an election. Accounting for a primary, this puts the deadline on May 11. The board has one meeting before that date on April 28, and is expected to vote on a resolution establishing mail voting in Unorganized Territory then.
Chairman Paul Koering asked whether the county board could change to mail voting for the entire county. Erickson explained the law requires each precinct to make that decision. She noted she’s communicated this to the townships and cities with in-person voting. Eighteen voting precincts in Crow Wing County already vote exclusively by mail, including the Second Assessment District, the county’s other unorganized territory formerly known as Dean Lake Township.
How to handle voting in Unorganized Territory is just one of the many considerations county leaders are grappling with ahead of the 2020 election.
“I thought when 2020 started that the presidential nominating primary was going to be the biggest challenge we’d have to face in elections in 2020,” Erickson said. “That’s turning out to be a piece of cake at this point in time.”
Other issues in need of resolution are the likely shortage of election judges, accommodating social distancing at all in-person polling locations and acquiring personal protective equipment and sanitizer. County officials have already determined all training for election judges will take place online. Erickson said she would prefer the entire state move to mail voting this year as a way to alleviate some of these planning considerations, but it seems that measure doesn’t have enough support in the state Legislature to move forward.
With this option likely off the table, Erickson said she’d like to see state legislators allow the consolidation of polling places into larger voting centers. Moving this direction would require fewer election judges and ease the planning required for dozens of separate locations. Erickson said she expected about 30% of registered voters to vote via absentee ballot before COVID-19, and now that number could jump to 40-50%. This means the volume of in-person voters will likely be smaller than usual.
“It may seem counterproductive to say a solution is to have fewer polling places, but if we pick the right polling places that have enough space that we can accommodate more spacing and utilizing those election judges, we can accommodate those voters in a better location that way,” Erickson said.
She’s also waiting on the Legislature to appropriate federal dollars set aside in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act for elections. Minnesota is set to receive $4 million for this purpose, which will be distributed to counties by the secretary of state’s office. These funds can be used for purchasing PPE, as well as covering other costs associated with making changes to the voting process due to the pandemic.
CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or email@example.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .