In what’s been a year of uncertainties, one thing seems to remain constant — through hell or high water, by mail or in person, Crow Wing County turned out in droves to participate in the election.
That was one takeaway from Deborah Erickson, the Crow Wing County administrative services director, after the end of what’s been an unusual and tumultuous election season. While the challenge was daunting, she said, ultimately the county came through with flying colors while both voters and election officials did their part to ensure the electorate’s voices were heard.
During a League of Women Voters of Brainerd Lakes Area virtual seminar, she spoke on her conclusions, some notable statistics, and observations she made as a chief supervisor of a sensitive process complicated by numerous factors during 2020. Election security was a key concern, as well as the safety of voters amid COVID-19, along with age-old challenges like staffing polling places or certifying votes, Erickson said, but central Minnesotans have a culture of civic participation and it showed Nov. 3.
“Every election is its own unique animal and 2020 definitely proved that to be true,” Erickson said during the virtual seminar Thursday, Nov. 19. “When we talk about voter turnout, we had 40,323 voters who voted in Crow Wing County. That is the highest number of people that we have ever had turnout for an election. The previous high was in 2016 with just over 36,000 voters. So we’ve definitely shattered that record significantly.”
“There are 51,180 eligible voters in Crow Wing County. That means 78.79% of eligible voters who live in Crow Wing County showed up to vote in this election,” she added. “I always brag about the fact that Crow Wing County has a very engaged electorate, that we always have high turnouts. We always seem that we have the high 60s, mid 70s — those are kind of our turnout margins that we typically see, particularly in a presidential year. But, this year, to have almost 80% of eligible voters turned out to vote was a great testament to the voters in our community.”
In a year of mail-in and absentee ballots, Erickson said the breakdown was about 60-40 in terms of mail-in voters versus those who showed up to the polls to cast their ballots. That was 24,253 accepted absentee or mail ballots and 16,070 people who voted in polling places on Election Day. Prior to the advent of COVID-19, county authorities were anticipating 30% to 35% of the total was going to be absentee or mail balloting. For comparison, that figure turned out to be about 25% in the last presidential election of 2016.
It’s important to remember that — whether it’s an in-person ballot or one sent in the mail — the process to vote is complex, heavily scrutinized, and structured in such a way that each vote is carefully tracked, verified and tabulated, Erickson said. Even if ballots were filled out incorrectly or signatures were muddled, it was not a matter of discarding them as it was of going through a lengthy process to have them certified properly, then counted, Erickson said. Otherwise, there were few isolated examples of ballots mailed from foreign countries like Brazil that ultimately couldn’t be counted because they were received days after Nov. 3.
“There are so many checks and balances that are in this process,” Erickson said. “Those people who are serving as election judges, they're the watchdogs that we have in those polling places. They're also the watchdogs that we have in the county process, from that standpoint of things, because they are involved in that process and everything that gets done with regard to absentee ballots — the accepting and rejecting processes. Those are done by teams of election judges who are working from different political parties. It's not just one person in a closet somewhere saying yes or no.”
There were timeless issues that arose like voters circling names instead of filling out the bubbles next to each candidate so the machines could properly tabulate, or when voters used pens that bled through the paper and confused the counters — and there was plenty of that to work around, Erickson noted — but there were newer challenges as well.
For example, voters expressed concerns their ballots were discarded because they couldn’t find them with the ballot tracking tool the state provides, Erickson said, but it was often the case that voters registered their ballot with their driver’s license number, then punched in the last four digits of their Social Security number to track it. That meant some voters struggled to find their ballot in the system, Erickson said, even if the ballots were tracked and processed just fine.
“These tools are useful, but a tool is only as good as the date you put in it,” Erickson said.
Since then, she said, it’s been something of a crusade to inform people on how election integrity is protected, with no shortage of work to counteract and debunk false information that can be found in every nook, cranny and corner of the internet.
“If you have questions, please come to the source. Please call us. We are always happy to answer any questions that come across our phones or desks or email — whatever it might be,” Erickson said. “We just really hope people get their information from a trusted source versus what they're seeing or hearing online or through social media or groups of friends. We just really want to make sure that people have access to the right information.”