Pandemic looms as county prepares for mail voting, fluctuating turnout during primary
Aug. 11 primaries could be a major test for county election officials as they make preparations for voting amid COVID-19.
American elections have been a pillar of consistency even during the worst of times — through the chaos of the Civil War, amid outbreaks of the Spanish flu and polio, during the deepest lows of the Great Depression and now 2020, a year seemingly filled with upheaval and crises.
As such, voters will have the opportunity to engage in their democracy with the upcoming primary on Tuesday, Aug. 11, to cast their votes on a host of local, state and federal interparty races. Deborah Erickson, the administrative services director for Crow Wing County and the official that oversees the election process, said the upcoming primary looks to be an unusual one for many reasons, as well as something of a preview of how the general election could unfold on Nov. 3.
Erickson reminded voters that some polling locations were changed for this year due to COVID-19 and advised county residents to check before they head out to vote to ensure they reach the right location. Visit pollfinder.sos.state.mn.us to find a polling place location. Polls are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. The Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse at 326 Laurel St. in Brainerd also serves as the polling place for voters from mail ballot precincts who need to register and vote on election day. The courthouse polling hours will be open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Erickson noted those who vote by absentee ballot or who reside in a mail ballot precinct should allow at least four business days for delivery. In addition, with a sizable increase of mail-in ballots this year and other complications to the election process, Erickson said people may have to wait a while before results can be tabulated and released.
Erickson said eligible voters who need to register will need to provide proof of residence — often in a form of personal ID like a driver’s license, as well as a utility bill with their address — in their precinct to be eligible to register and vote. More information on how voters can fulfill this requirement can be found at https://bit.ly/33nOoiJ .
Voters are reminded to follow instructions carefully when they fill out their ballots and that, as it is a primary, they are only allowed to vote for candidates on the docket for a single political party. For more information on the upcoming primary, Erickson said voters are encouraged to visit crowwing.us/110/Elections or call 218-824-1051.
Turnout on Aug. 11
Erickson said primaries are notoriously difficult to predict in terms of turnout — even for the experts — as they’re subject to myriad factors as diverse as the political climate and candidates on the ballot, to the number of people aware of the primary, to the momentary whims of voters on primary days.
This is borne out in the numbers. For perspective, only 5.7% of registered voters turned out for the 2016 primaries while a robust 27% turned out for the 2018 midterms. The difference wasn’t the nature of the race — as 2016 was a presidential election year, typically a driver for voter enthusiasm — but who’s on the primary ballot, Erickson said, and this may be the case for 2020 where multiple local incumbents are facing challengers during a volatile year.
“This year, we don't have any county-wide races. We do have several races at the state and federal level are on the ballot from a primary perspective,” Erickson said. “However, we also have a county commissioner race in District 5, so we do anticipate to see some higher pockets of turnout in some areas across the county. … Based on that, I think we’re going to see a higher turnout than what we saw in 2016 because what’s on the ballot.”
Voting amid COVID-19
Of course, the unique factor this year and possibly the most significant, she said, is COVID-19.
Erickson also noted Crow Wing County is seeing a significant uptick in request for absentee ballots. This goes in line with expectations the turnout for in-person voting will see a substantial reduction this year, Erickson said, as more voters take their personal safety and others into account.
County officials have been preparing polling places for months, rolling out new sanitation protocols and manuals, planning for social distancing, having Plexiglass barriers in place, disinfectants available at multiple points in the voting process, supplying masks and enforcing mask mandates — though, Erickson noted, people are not required, but strongly encouraged to wear a mask for their and others’ safety. She noted voters can request a mask at the door, or have the option to fill a ballot in their vehicle if they’re not comfortable entering a polling place.
Erickson said a pen will be provided to voters to use at each of the required stations to sign the roster and mark their ballot. The pen will be collected in a designated box after voting and sanitized before being used again. She also noted voters will be asked to adhere to social distancing guidelines while in the polling place, and election judges may give guidance in the polling place as needed.
In short, Erickson reminds people to be patient and respectful of election judges who are working to uphold a vital civic process during uncertain times.
“We want to make sure that (voters) are being patient, that they are recognizing that our workers in the polling place are diehard workers who are there to help provide that civic opportunity for everybody to be able to cast their ballot — which is their right,” Erickson said. “And we want to make sure they are respectful of our election judges, that they are patient with the process.”
GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .