For past presidential elections, Hennepin County’s election office typically added about a dozen temporary workers to help manage the rush of voters and ballots.
This year, with the storm of an attention-grabbing presidential race and the first-ever opportunity to vote early without an excuse, officials had to hire another 80 workers, draft Hennepin County employees from other departments, recruit more college students to volunteer, and dedicate an entire floor of a building for storing and sorting ballots.
“We have literally hundreds of people doing that work for us,” said Hennepin County Elections Manager Ginny Gelms.
As the clock to Election Day ticks down from days to hours, early voting sites around Minnesota are extending their hours and officials are entering the final scramble of making sure everything — the ballots, the voters, the volunteers, the elections judges, the machines — are working together to ensure the election goes off without a hitch. It’s an effort that requires a high level of coordination and efficiency, especially in a year when voting sites have already seen some of their busiest days on record.
By Thursday, the last day the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office released early voting totals, nearly 416,000 people had already voted in person or had their mailed-in ballots received by elections officials. By the same point in the 2014 election, which was the first opportunity for “no excuse” early voting, but not a presidential election, just short of 148,000 people had voted.
This year’s latest tally amounts to about 13 percent of the state’s approximately 3.2 million registered voters, though officials said they expect that number will end up being considerably higher by the close of early voting at 5 p.m. Monday.
Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky said the first three days of the week before the election amounted to the second, third and fourth-largest days of in-person voting that the county’s main election office has ever seen. (They were topped only by the day before the 2008 presidential election.) He said he expected that record — 1,193 people — would likely be topped on what are usually the biggest early voting days of the election: the Friday, Saturday and Monday before Election Day.
Mansky said it’s likely Election Day itself will follow that record-setting trend.
“What we’re seeing here is kind of like a crystal ball looking into the future,” he said.
Early voting offices around the state will be open this weekend, although hours vary by location. Ramsey County’s main election office, on West Plato Boulevard, is open Saturday (8 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and Sunday (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) Other locations in Ramsey County vary by site. Hennepin County’s downtown office is open only Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., but other locations’ hours differ; Minneapolis’ early voting locations will be open on Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.
Elections officials have been opening the early ballots and feeding them into vote-counting machines since Tuesday, exactly a week before the election. Tabulations of those votes, however, will wait for the close of voting on Election Day, at 8 p.m.
On Tuesday, some polling locations will have extra staff on hand to help keep things running smoothly. That includes the city of Minneapolis, which has been operating four early voting sites and will oversee voting in 132 precincts on Election Day. City Clerk Casey Carl said the city plans to add a sergeant at arms — basically a doorkeeper — at every location, to free up elections judges to focus on questions from voters and processing ballots. Despite the military sounding title, the additional staff members are not armed and are primarily expected to keep the lines of voters organized.
Carl said all of the people working in polling places will also be letting voters know if they see any behavior that is prohibited by state election law. That includes wearing clothing or pins advocating for a party or candidate, or being within the 100-foot buffer zone around the polling place unless they are a voter, poll judge or authorized voter challenger. Each party is allowed to have an appointed person at polling sites to observe voting and any challenges made to voters’ eligibility.
Among the people filling that role on Election Day will be Minneapolis City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, who participated in the DFL’s training for election challengers. Glidden, a lawyer, said there may be additional interest in the role this year because of comments made by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in which he encouraged supporters to monitor polling places. Locally, a voters’ watchdog group has filed legal challenges over the state’s procedure for determining who is eligible to vote, arguing that the process could allow felons, noncitizens and legal wards of the state to vote.
But Glidden said the use of challengers is also a long-standing practice that she said ensures more people are looking out for voters’ rights.
“From my perspective, the process is there to allow people to vote, and to make sure there aren’t unintended barriers in the way,” she said.
Other election officials around the Twin Cities said they did not plan to expand security measures at the polls. Dakota County Elections Manager Andy Lokken said the plans and preparations his office has in place are going well.
“We’ve been working on this for two years, so we’re just working our plan here and it’s going all right,” he said.