Early voting? Minnesota has it — in the worse way

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 18, 2014 - 5:56 PM

We have a facsimile of it in “no-excuse” absentee voting. That’s the hard way to do it. Here’s how it should really work.

Last summer, it was the City Hall Wedding Chapel. This year, the lobby of Minneapolis’ granite temple of government has morphed into a polling place.

Minneapolis residents, step right up to vote in the Aug. 12 primary. Election judges, precinct finders and translators are there beginning at 8 a.m. each business day and on the Saturday before the election to take your early, er, no-excuse absentee vote. While you’re there, grab the Father of Waters’ big toe for luck. No charge.

It’s an orderly, well-staffed operation, exceeding state law’s requirements for in-person absentee voting stations. But with the new “no-excuse” law inviting more absentee voting, and with that opportunity exploited by both sides in the DFL firefight between state Rep. Phyllis Kahn and challenger Mohamud Noor, things happen. A city clerk can find himself at the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Last week, the high court sided with Kahn in a complaint about three-year veteran Minneapolis election judge Fadumo Yusuf, accused of describing the District 60B contest to a voter in her native tongue as one between “our Somali brother” and “the old Jewish lady.”

But Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea did not need to remove Yusuf from election judge duties. City Clerk Casey Carl had already found a back-office assignment for her. He’s keen on keeping the City Hall polling place above reproach.

That’s a challenge, despite his best efforts. And those challenges aren’t unique to Minneapolis. The state’s new no-excuses absentee voting law is increasing traffic at every Minnesota election administration office, city or county. Absentee ballots for the Aug. 12 primary became available on June 27. As of last midweek, about 33 percent more such ballots had been accepted than at the same juncture in 2012, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said.

That’s still fewer than 4,000 ballots — in a state with more than 3 million registered voters. The trickle of early ballots elsewhere in the state could become a torrent if candidates start pushing the absentee option as hard as Noor and Kahn have. A telling stat: As of July 17, nearly 1,100 more absentee ballots have been requested or cast in 60B than were cast in total in Kahn’s last contested primary, in 2008.

One might declare that early voting has come to Minnesota. But one wouldn’t be quite accurate. Early voting and no-excuse absentee voting aren’t the same. The Legislature preferred the latter for reasons inscrutible even to this seasoned Legislature-watcher.

Absentee ballots, by mail or in person, become available 46 days before an election, a time period in keeping with federal law. But they aren’t counted until Election Day. Early votes, as allowed in 33 other states, don’t lie around or wind up in anybody’s trunk. They are slurped into counting machines right after they’re cast.

That means an absentee ballot can be “clawed back” and cast anew at the polls on Election Day. Voters might appreciate that chance when, say, a candidate resigns in late October amid a sex scandal or a candidate’s plane falls from the sky.

But the clawback option is the only feature of in-person absentee voting that beats early voting on my ledger. Early voting is cheaper to administer. It involves less paper and postage and fewer human overseers. There’s less margin for the kinds of errors that made some absentee ballots uncountable in the Franken-Coleman recount of 2008-09.

In-person absentee balloting can happen pretty much anywhere local election officials decide to put it — at a counter, on a table, in a separate room or under the stony gaze of a statue with a lucky big toe. Hanging around the polls isn’t permissible on Election Day. Bystanders are unpoliceable when voting happens every business day for six weeks in the middle of a busy lobby. Trained election judges of both big parties — or not — can be in charge of the ballot giving and receiving.

State law allows such local variations because the 46-day absentee balloting window is so long, and in most places, crowds have not yet appeared. But tolerate lax procedures, and an election administrator can find his or her name on a Supreme Court order. Put an election judge in the line of partisan crossfire, and good luck recruiting next year’s crop of judges — the essential cogs in this state’s election wheel.

That’s why legislators can expect to hear pleas from local elections officials to enact true early voting, confined to a more manageable duration, and to make absentee voting a mail-only option.

What would be a fitting window for early voting? The average in the early-voting states is 22 days. State Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, one of the Legislature’s wise heads about elections law, said she likes two weeks. Any longer, she said, and “it will be like having a number of elections taking place, not a single election.” Not all voters will witness the same campaign.

My bid: 10 days, starting two Saturdays before Election Day, and including Sunday voting. Why so short? I subscribe to the journalists’ credo: Campaigns matter.

Campaigns reveal much about candidate characteristics that go well beyond the issue positions posted early on a website. Campaigns afford opportunities for citizens to forge consensus and to deliver policy mandates to the people they elect. As much as possible, citizens should see the whole campaign before voting. The most valuable moments often occur in the closing days.

A long period of early voting invites candidates to beef up their ground campaigns well in advance of Election Day, almost inevitably at the expense of an “air war” over big ideas conveyed in big ways. Get-out-the-vote operations will become all-important weeks earlier than they do now. Advertising, debating, and launching new ideas and arguments will take a back seat to getting voters to the polls.

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