The 87 counties of Minnesota are gearing up for an election on Nov. 3 that could take place under the looming threat of COVID-19 and, if an emergency status remains in effect at that time, a statewide mail-in ballot initiative may be in order.
That’s a major provision of proposals from Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon and is being considered by lawmakers in St. Paul at this time, said Crow Wing County Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson during a phone interview Wednesday, April 15.
“Until we are told otherwise, we need to treat elections in Minnesota as a public health issue,” Simon told lawmakers in St. Paul, who met by teleconference on April 9. “Because if we guess right now and guess that the crisis will go past us and that it will be over by August or there won’t be a wave two in November and if we guess wrong, we’re in for a real disaster of an election season.”
While the particulars need to be hashed out and the big picture of what Election Day 2020 will look like remains undecided, Erickson noted, Minnesota counties are planning through the eyes preventing the spread.
“Nothing has been decided yet at a state level. There's a lot of conversations that are still happening. I would expect to see something coming statewide. But I have no idea what that would look like yet at this point,” Erickson said. “One of the big things that we are hoping for at a state level is some change in the legislation that will allow flexibility in each community to be able to address the election needs that we have in our community.”
Erickson noted the state of Minnesota already has a robust absentee ballot system in place since 1996 and state law already allows all townships, or cities with fewer than 400 registered voters outside the seven-county metro area, to conduct elections via mail-in ballot. These areas may not have the populations to staff and judge viable polling stations, or they might not have adequate or available buildings to house a polling station, or the township might not have the funds available to bankroll an election.
Erickson observed funding equipment and especially finding people to staff polling stations during Election Day is already an issue organizers need to grapple with, and this was particularly evident during the March 3 primaries prior to any measures taken in response to the pandemic in the state.
And, of course, there’s the elephant in the room — the fact polling stations often can’t ensure people remain at least 6 feet apart, Erickson said, which could provide breeding grounds for new or escalated outbreaks of COVID-19.
In Crow Wing County there are 18 precincts that vote only by mail, said Erickson, who added she’s confident — with a little extra funding and some structural changes in the process — the county can accommodate a county-wide mail-in ballot initiative.
“If it works in some of our communities, why doesn't it work in all of our communities?” Erickson said. “That's one question or one way to look at it. It’s not a free for all. All the recipients of these ballots have already been through the registration and the vetting process, all of their information has already been verified in order for them to be considered a registered voter.”
In terms of election security, Erickson noted again that Minnesota — as well as other states like Washington and Oregon — have worked for decades with comparable reliability in absentee ballots to voting at the polls. Voters are required to provide multiple points of identity verification and witnesses are required to sign the ballot as well as the voter. Ballots are processed by judges from both major parties. And, by virtue of being mailed documents, mail-in ballots also provide a detailed paper trail, Erickson said, which is a tried and true staple of election security.
In terms of overwhelming the current infrastructure, Erickson said the state and counties are in communication with the U.S. Postal Service to find ways to accommodate a higher volume of mail-in ballots. It’s key for legislators to make important decisions and move quickly on this issue in the next couple weeks, she said, to provide the amount of funding, equipment and an expanded voting period so the counties can accommodate the election.