The rate at which absentee and mail-in primary ballots are trickling in has officials expecting a low voter turnout for Super Tuesday in Crow Wing County.
Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson told the Crow Wing County Board Tuesday, Feb. 18, her office has received 238 ballots as of last week out of nearly 41,000 registered voters. With two weeks to go before the March 3 presidential nominating primary, this amounts to less than 1% of eligible voters.
“I would call that slow,” Erickson said. “... The turnout of the last presidential primary election in Minnesota was 10% statewide. I will be surprised if we get 10% in Crow Wing County.”
Erickson’s assessment of the presidential primary turnout came amid a broader update at Tuesday’s committee of the whole meeting, covering the many facets of the administrative services department in the county including facilities, information technology, budgets and finance, human resources and elections.
She pointed to a number of possible contributing factors to the slow response so far: the fact many Crow Wing County residents choose to travel south during the winter, the requirement people must declare allegiance with a political party, and the presence of just one candidate — President Donald Trump — on the Republican Party primary ballot.
“There’s been talk that perhaps people who align with that party don’t feel that it’s necessary for them to come out and vote,” Erickson said.
Low turnout or not, election preparations go on as usual. About 500 election judges are trained to serve across the county. Required tests of election equipment are conducted, including public tests scheduled for 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Feb. 20-21, for up to 11 precincts at a time.
“First, we determine what the outcome should be, so we know what we want … the results to be,” Erickson explained about the testing process. “We mark some ballots so that they turn out that way, and then we have to test all the equipment to prove that it is going to work the way that it’s supposed to.
“Once we’ve done that pretest, then we bring the election judges in and do it in front of the public, so that we have public accuracy tests that proves that our equipment is doing this.”
Erickson noted the cost of running an election is relatively static at about $200,000, no matter the turnout or number of offices listed on a ballot. This means primary elections tend to cost much more per ballot than general elections. During the 2016 primary election — a ballot that included only one statewide judicial office, and in Crow Wing County, a city council primary for Brainerd residents — just 4.5% of eligible voters partook. The cost per ballot during that election was $82.72. By contrast, the general election later that year, which included the presidential contest, saw a 75% turnout of eligible voters at a cost of $4.98 per ballot.
Erickson said turnout during presidential election years is consistently higher than non-presidential years, but that’s something she’d like to see change.
“If it’s not a presidential year, it doesn’t bring out as many people. And you’ll see that every cycle, every two years, the presidential year has definitely had a higher turnout of people who choose to vote,” Erickson said. “I wish people would understand that their voice is just as important in that off-year as it is in that presidential year. And their impact on a local level is just as important as their impact on the federal level.”
Erickson’s interest in and knowledge about elections has her bringing those assets to groups at both the state and federal levels. She serves as the chair of the elections committee for the Minnesota Association of County Officers and is a member of the executive board of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission Standards Board. Erickson told the board Tuesday she will soon begin representing the standards board on the Government Coordinating Council, which seeks to protect election security as part of critical federal infrastructure.
“I always like to remind our legislators and our decision-makers that democracy doesn’t just happen in the seven-county metro area, that there is impact on the decisions that they make across the whole state,” Erickson said. “And as a state organization, we have worked very, very hard to start to establish best practices so that voter experience is the same regardless of which county you go into.”
Where’s your ballot?
Voting via mail-in absentee ballot is expected to rise again during the 2020 election, and 18 of Crow Wing County’s 62 voting precincts vote exclusively by mail. Erickson said this sometimes creates uncertainty for people — will the ballot arrive where and when it’s supposed to? But there are two tools that can help instill confidence in the process, she added — informed delivery provided by the U.S. Postal Service and an online ballot finder provided by the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State.
Informed delivery allows postal customers to digitally preview what is expected to arrive in their mailboxes on any given day. The secretary of state’s online tool allows voters to submit their personal identifying information to track the whereabouts of their absentee or mail ballot.
“Have I applied for it? Has it been processed? Has it been sent out? When was it sent out? Has it been returned? Did the county receive it after I mailed it? They can track that ballot process through that whole stage … so that’s another confidence booster,” Erickson said.
Erickson said anyone submitting their ballot by mail should make sure to give themselves enough time to ensure it’s received by the county by Election Day.