For voters by mail, campaign is history

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 26, 2008 - 10:18 PM

Seen by many as a money-saver for local governments while also increasing voter participation, voting by mail is on the rise in Minnesota

A negative ad blitz? Last-minute phone calling by campaign workers? Another media poll? Doesn't matter to Ross Hogate.

For Hogate and thousands of others across rural Minnesota, the election's over already. They've voted by mail and moved on.

Seen by many as a money-saver for local governments while also increasing voter participation, voting by mail is on the rise in Minnesota. In nearly 12 percent of the state's precincts, all of them rural, the one-room polling place will be shuttered come Nov. 4, the ballot box replaced by the mailbox.

"You don't have to worry about what day to go and vote. It's kind of nice. It's easy and convenient," said Hogate, who voted to approve mail voting in Lima Township, outside of Remer, when he was on the township board in 1994.

Voting by mail, something of a broad expansion of absentee voting, began on a limited basis in Minnesota in 1987. This year, Minnesota is one of 28 states that provide it, according to Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center in Oregon, where all voting is done by mail. Nationally, about 30 percent of this year's presidential election ballots are expected to be cast early, either by mail or in person.

Postage paid

Voting by mail in Minnesota is allowed only in precincts outside the metro area with fewer than 400 registered voters, so less than 4 percent of registered voters qualify. Where local officials have approved it, election managers mail ballots to all registered voters up to 20 days before the election, no questions asked. Voters have until Election Day either to mail them back (postage paid) or drop them off at the county courthouse. Strict absentee voting generally requires a voter to ask for a ballot and prove that he or she will be away from the home precinct on Election Day.

In Kittson County, in the state's far northwest corner, 34 of the county's 37 precincts are going with all-mail voting this year. That's up by eight since the last presidential election. The only three precincts left with polling places are in the cities of Hallock (pop. 1,196) and Karlstad (pop. 794) and in Springbrook Township.

County Auditor/Treasurer Marilyn Gustafson said mail voting is economical because local governments don't have to pay election judges to sit in every town hall in the county on Election Day. They don't have to turn on the heat and lights. The counting gets done earlier. It also eliminates situations like that in 2000, when heavy rain made the dirt parking lot at one town hall such a mess that the polling place had to be moved at 5 p.m. to a county supervisor's home a mile away.

"The ones who do appreciate it are the older people. They get a little nervous when snowflakes are in the air, and may not make it to the polls," Gustafson said. "The younger people, they're busy, running every which direction with their kids and lifestyles. They don't like to take the time to vote. They appreciate vote-by-mail as well."

Gustafson added that voter participation has increased with mail voting, particularly in primary elections, which are always low attention-getters. In the 2004 fall primary, 38 percent of the registered voters in mail precincts in Kittson County cast a ballot; only 22 percent turned out to vote at polling places.

In Blue Earth County, 13 of 53 precincts have mail voting this year. How many in the last presidential election? One, with a voting rate of 98 percent.

"It's so slick. The people that do it love it," said Patty O'Connor, director of taxpayer services.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said he expects that the Legislature will soon raise the precinct mail voting minimum to 1,000 registered voters, which would dramatically increase the number of precincts participating. Meanwhile, more and more voters are voting early in person or by absentee ballot anyway because of busy schedules, he added.

What's not to like?

Ritchie said he wants to see more election results before he takes a firm position on mail voting. Some say it has its drawbacks.

Former Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer said that without a voter present, it's more difficult to deal with a poorly marked ballot. Others note that it adds extra hands to the election process -- those of the U.S. Postal Service. For those who aren't registered to vote on Election Day, or who forget to get their ballot into the mail in time, voting requires a drive to the courthouse, since there's no longer a local polling place. From Hogate's home, that would be a 34-mile drive across Cass County into Walker, each way. About half of Cass County's precincts are voting by mail this year.

Mike Doro, superintendent of Northland Community Schools in Remer, said his ballot has been sitting on the kitchen table because so many things can happen in the final days of a campaign, after many have voted -- Sen. Paul Wellstone's death in a plane crash in 2002 being a vivid example. But that also suggests mail voters get the luxury of time with their ballot to study some of the less prominent candidates.

Because mail voting is spread over time, it has left some election strategists puzzling over how to bring a campaign to a climax. For example, the early-voting analyst Gronke noted that last weekend was particularly busy nationally with campaign rallies, in part because many mail voters were just receiving their ballots, though Election Day was more than two weeks away.

"I'm concerned about the shattering of the rhythms of campaigns," he said. "I don't know if that's going to be good. What does it mean if in the final days of the campaign your neighbor says they voted two weeks ago?"

One clear effect from mail voting, as it's been adopted in Minnesota, is the likely disappearance of the white clapboard town hall polling place from Election Day news photos. It could also be the end of Election Day as a time for residents to get reacquainted -- if it ever really was.

"You can't linger and have a potluck, so where's the social event? " noted Blue Earth County's O'Connor. "That dog just doesn't hunt."

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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