No excuse needed to vote absentee in Minnesota

Ballots for Aug. 12 primary will be available on Friday.

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Secretary of State Mark Ritchie

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Minnesotans will no longer have to stretch the truth to get an absentee ballot.

A new law, approved overwhelmingly last year, will allow voters to request absentee ballots regardless of whether they can get to their polling places on Election Day.

The program, coupled with online tools that will let voters register online and check the status of their ballots, is part of a nationwide movement to make voting easier. Minnesota’s law doesn’t go as far as those in some states, where vote-by-mail and early voting have become commonplace, but its supporters say the changes will help the state maintain its best-in-the-nation turnout status.

“I think anything that permits more people to vote, as long as they are doing so lawfully, is a boon,” said DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. “The more people who will vote, the better off we’ll be.”

The changes will further speed up an election cycle that already seems to start earlier every year. This year, absentee ballots for the Aug. 12 primary will be available starting Friday.

Republicans are promoting the new absentee ballots at county fairs and campaign offices as a way to get people to shake off the summer doldrums and vote in the primary. The GOP has even set up a website and prepared postcards to let Minnesotans know they can vote early by mail.

“We’re looking to encourage as many people to turn out to vote as possible here,” said Republican Party Deputy Chairman Chris Fields. For the first time in decades, Republicans are holding contested primaries in the U.S. Senate and governor’s races.

Before the change, Minnesotans voting absentee had to attest that they would be physically unable to get to their polling places because of travel, illness or several other specific reasons. Now no explanation will be necessary.

“Finally, we’ve joined the rest of the nation,” said Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

The new law also means that people can vote “absentee in person” for any reason. Minnesota has long permitted voters to go to their local city or county offices to cast ballots ahead of election day, but now more may do so.

More online voter access

Minnesota’s voting systems have been through a lot recently.

After the 2008 U.S. Senate recount that stretched into 2009 largely over disputes about improperly rejected absentee ballots, the state reexamined its ballot system. As a result, the Legislature and then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty moved to make absentee balloting smoother and more transparent, and the secretary of state clarified ballot instructions for voters.

Election officials also now can quickly check to make sure that voters properly filled out the forms that come with the ballots. If voters make a mistake, they’ll be alerted that their ballot will be rejected and given the chance to try again.

“It made it less likely for people to make mistakes and it also increased the notification that people get [their ballots] replaced,” said Ginny Gelms, the Hennepin County elections manager.

Voters can check the status of their absentee ballots on the Secretary of State’s website, for an extra measure of comfort. That comfort may be needed; after all the recount-related disputes about ballots, officials have been told to be extra careful in making sure accepted ballots are perfect.

This year, the state also adopted a law enacting online voter registration. Ritchie created an online registration system last year, but some Republicans challenged it and a court ruled the system had to be approved by the Legislature. A bipartisan group of lawmakers and the governor quickly changed the law to permit online registration.

Two dozen states now have laws allowing online voter registration.

Some states have gone further. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 states now allow early voting either in-person or by mail, and 27 states don’t require a reason for requesting an absentee ballot.

Most states still have traditional polling places, but three states — Oregon, Washington and Colorado — have moved to all mail-in voting, with limited provisions made for in-person voting. In Minnesota, townships with fewer than 400 registered voters are allowed to use vote-by-mail.

Absentee surge expected

The combination of rapid-fire changes to Minnesota’s voting laws means voters can now register, request an absentee ballot, receive it and cast it without ever going farther than their mailbox.

“Voting is now easier than ever in Minnesota,” said DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin.

For election officials, the new absentee rules could mean an avalanche of early ballots. In November 2010, nearly 130,000 voters cast absentee ballots. That number could double this year.

“We’re expecting to have higher volumes of absentee ballots,” said Gelms, of Hennepin County.

Officials in Hennepin, the state’s most populous county, have been preparing for months. In February they began reassessing their system and pulled together election officials from across the country to look at more-efficient processes. By May the county had adopted new policies and completed training of local clerks, Gelms said.

Partisans will find another plus in the new absentee ballot system. For a fee, the secretary of state’s office will make available lists of those who’ve voted absentee. That will allow campaigns to find out who has already voted and aim their resources at those who remain in play.

Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey said the party has been planning such a targeting program for months.

“Anyone who has ever gotten a handful of people at their door or people on their phones after they have already submitted an absentee ballot should appreciate the fact that we will be able to do that,” Downey said with a laugh.

 

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @RachelSB

 

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