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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota is on the doorstep of its biggest statewide election changes in years by providing more latitude for absentee voting and by giving political parties, campaigns and others the ability to track who has sent ballots in for counting.
Starting June 27, people can obtain an absentee ballot to vote early in the August primary either in person or by mail without having to cite a legally recognized excuse, as was required before a 2013 law change. The general election voting window opens in September.
Public awareness efforts will ramp up next week, but in recent days the secretary of state's office launched an online system — http://mnvotes.org — that allows people to request an absentee ballot and follow its status. Officials intimately involved in election planning anticipate a greater percentage of voters than ever will cast a ballot ahead of Election Day.
"We expect there will be a big increase of folks choosing to vote absentee both because they won't have to give an excuse anymore and because political parties, interest groups and candidates will be really pushing this as an easy way for folks to vote when it's convenient for them," said Deputy Secretary of State Beth Fraser.
Absentee votes have ranged from five to 10 percent of the overall ballots cast in the last four elections, with higher levels occurring in presidential years. The head of elections in Minnesota's second-largest county said he believes as many as one-fifth of county voters could submit an absentee ballot this year, swamping a record of 12 percent set in 2008.
For the parties it's a way to bank votes early in a year with hard-fought contests for U.S. Senate, governor and control of the state House.
"Instead of the get-out-the-vote activities that used to occur in the last 72 hours and even the day of an election, we've now got a 45-day extension," said Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey.
Previously, people seeking to vote absentee had to attest that they were ill or disabled, were scheduled to be away from home, were serving elsewhere as an election judge or had a religious observance.
Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Ken Martin said his team is playing up the no-excuse aspect in phone calls and mailings to potential voters. He hopes the eased access will help the party combat a typically steep drop-off in Democratic turnout in midterm elections.
For the first time, election administrators will supply information about which voters have submitted absentee ballots before an election rather than holding those details back until voting closes.
Fraser said the identity of people applying for an absentee ballot isn't public, but data about who has returned one for counting will be. Political parties routinely run aggressive absentee ballot application programs, giving them a sense of voters who might possess one. The list would come at a cost and there could be as much as a 10-day lag in disclosure.
Still, it's a goldmine of data to party leaders and campaigns, allowing them to devote money and energy toward contacting people who need a nudge and lay off those who have already done their civic duty.
"It's a very efficient way of being able to take a universe and being able to really chase them down and make sure that they have voted," Martin said.
Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Montana and North Carolina are among states that already have some level of disclosure about absentee ballot data, either when they're issued or returned by voters, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State.
Minnesota's absentee program differs than early-voting systems in many other states because the ballots aren't put into counting machines until the night of the election, and voters have until seven days before then to change their mind with a substitute ballot.
Joe Mansky, the manager of Ramsey County's election office, said he expects as many as 20 percent of the county's roughly 280,000 voters to go the absentee route this year. And if all goes well, calls for full-blown early voting could ratchet up.
"The question we all have is how rapidly are we going to move from the path we're now on," Mansky said.