Meeker County Courthouse

While the Minnesota Legislature has been locked in a stalemate over mail balloting, the Meeker County Auditor’s Office has been preparing for 10 precincts who will vote by mail this year — and an increase in “no excuses” absentee voting.

The Legislature has debated mail balloting during its current session as fears of the coronavirus affecting both turnout and the availability of election judges have mounted. But late last week, the Senate passed a bill focused on ensuring safe elections in the August primary and November general election, but does not include a plan to hold the 2020 elections entirely by mail — a proposal opposed by Republicans.

Secretary of State Steve Simon and county auditors across the state “lobbied hard to see if we could have all mail ballots,” Meeker County Auditor Barb Loch said. “That just isn’t going to happen.”

So, Meeker County will continue with its plans as best it can, Loch said.

That means preparing mail-in ballots for the 10 county precincts at which vote-by-mail has been authorized. State law allows vote-by-mail at precincts with fewer than 400 registered voters, if the governing body adopts a resolution in favor no later than 90 days prior to the first election.

County precincts that will vote by mail this year include: Cedar Mills city, Cedar Mills Township, Cosmos city, Cosmos Township, Danielson Township, Darwin Township, Ellsworth Township, Forest City Township, Harvey Township and Kingston city.

Those precincts include 2,669 registered, nearly 20 percent of the county’s 13,647 registered voters.

Given the success of vote by mail in past elections, Loch said, switching entirely to vote-by-mail seemed a good option, because of the uncertainties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Potential rapid changes in response to the COVID-19 infectious disease (makes) planning very difficult,” Loch said.

She told the Meeker County Board during its regular meeting May 6 that she was concerned about “vulnerable polling locations” that might not have the space to spread out voters, or even to eliminate the sharing of pens used in the voting booth.

Meeker County has 14 polling locations, including one at the courthouse in Litchfield. Additionally, two churches and a fire hall are used as poll sites, with the remaining being in city or township buildings.

If the need for social distancing creates a need to expand the number of poll locations, she said, it could “cause an even greater shortage of election judges to meet requirements and additional equipment needs,” as well as voter confusion about where to vote.

Recruiting and training election judges is likely to be a special challenge this year, Loch said. Given social distancing and stay-at-home restrictions, her office may need to implement virtual training sessions for judges. And the field of potential judges could be reduced because of the fear of the coronavirus.

“No excuse” absentee voting is expanded in a Minnesota House bill, which also includes $17 million in federal funding that could be used to promote the voting method.

Loch expects increased absentee voting will put more demands on county officials to process and count ballots and to make results available in a timely manner.

Early or absentee voting in the 2018 general election was 18.6 percent of Meeker County’s registered voters, with 1,183 voters (11.4 percent) casting absentee ballots at the courthouse prior to Election Day and another 752 (7.2 percent) mailed ballots.

Statewide, Minnesota saw 24 percent of ballots cast early in the 2018 election, with nearly 78 percent of all accepted absentee ballots coming the last 14 days before Election Day. Absentee voting allows a voter to receive mailed ballots each election after a one-time application.

Secretary of State Simon hopes that through promotion the state can increase absentee balloting to 50 percent or 60 percent in this year’s elections, an effort that could alleviate the potential crowding at in-person polling sites.

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