Voting absentee? Better have a witness address

About 10 percent of votes have been rejected so far, but voters still have a chance to get it right. It's another result of all those fights over absentee ballots in the 2008 U.S. Senate race.

The result of all those fights over absentee ballots in the 2008 U.S. Senate race? More ballots are being rejected in 2010.

Statewide, at least 10 percent of absentee ballots cast in advance of the Aug. 10 primary were rejected on first pass. Some counties neared a 20 percent initial rejection rate.

"We, obviously, take this very seriously," said Rachel Smith, Hennepin County's election manager. About 8 percent of absentee ballots sent into the state's largest county were invalid.

The absentee ballot envelopes were redesigned since they became a national focus during the hotly contested and achingly close race between incumbent Norm Coleman and eventual winner Al Franken. Meanwhile, election officials have become stricter judges of ballots' validity.

It has all added up to many Minnesotans being put on notice: You didn't do it right; please try again.

Unlike previous years, election officials are catching the problems early and sending replacements to all those who had mailed absentee ballots without filling out the proper information. That means voters who messed up the first time have another chance to get it right and have their votes counted.

Those changes are due to a new law passed this year to revamp the absentee ballot system. According to the new law, counties must review absentee ballots within five days of their arrival; in the two weeks before the election, ballots must be reviewed within three days. Election officials don't look at the ballots themselves but at all the external information included on absentee ballot envelopes.

If any of the envelopes don't include the proper information, such as the voters' address, their signature, the name of their witness or their witnesses' address, the ballots will be rejected, and the voters will be sent a replacement. Closer to the election, officials will call or e-mail the voters to let them know to try again.

There have been a lot of repacements.

Patty O'Connor, elections director for Blue Earth County, said when her small county got back absentee ballots from the few hundred voters who always vote absentee, they started to see problems. "I think we were pushing 20 percent [invalid] but just with those very first 100," she said. "The rejection rate is getting better all the time."

Witness address problems

County election officials and the Secretary of State's office said most of the problems appeared in the area witnesses are supposed to complete.

"The witnesses were not filling the address section, as required," said John Aiken, spokesman for Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. After hearing about the high number of missing addresses, the secretary of state this month recommended that local election officials highlight the witness area before sending absentee materials to voters.

Election officials said that's helped lower the rejection rate.

In years past, some election officials would offer voters a little extra help.

"These people have been voting this way with us for 15 years, and when they'd come back to us, if, you know, their witness was missing their address or they missed something like their address, we were allowed to fill those in," O'Connor said. "After 2008, we can't do that anymore."

Why can't they offer help? The Franken-Coleman Senate race was so close that it went into recount and then months of trial. The focus of much of the eight-month-long post-election fight: absentee ballots. In the end, a judicial election panel decreed that all absentee ballots must be painstakingly filled to be valid. That means even if everything else is perfect and the witness forgets to include his or her address, the vote could be tossed out. That absentee ballot examination also means election officials are making an extra effort to make sure every county does things just like every other county.

Campaigns hope it's fixed

This year they are being extra persnickety to make sure all votes are valid. "We want to make sure that everything is done perfectly, especially since we can fix it now," Smith said.

Campaigns are certainly hoping that it gets fixed -- and that voters who had their ballots rejected try again.

"Our campaign has put a lot of effort into early absentee balloting," said Katharine Tinucci, DFL gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton's deputy campaign manager. Dayton's rivals, Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Matt Entenza, have also stressed the absentee opportunity, even sending potential supporters applications to make sure they vote despite the summer vacation election timing.

Tinucci said the rate of rejection is "very concerning. We truly hope that all Minnesotans who vote in good faith in this election will have their votes counted."

So far, absentee ballots haven't exactly been flooding state election offices. As of July 29, election officials across the state had accepted just over 10,000 absentee ballots.

"It is just really, really quiet," O'Connor said.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164

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