A spike in absentee ballot requests and anecdotal evidence that more people are registering to vote suggest higher turnout in Minnesota’s Aug. 14 primary and beyond, election officials say.
The number of absentee ballots requested by state voters soared to 166,603 as of last Thursday. On the same date in 2016, the total was 95,582.
“People are just paying attention more than they have in the recent past,” Secretary of State Steve Simon said Monday, tracking what he called “enthusiasm across the political spectrum.”
That could reflect a preoccupation with divisions generated by President Donald Trump’s election two years ago and efforts by both parties to recruit new voters.
“There’s less apathy than there was in the past,” said Deborah Erickson, Crow Wing County’s election supervisor.
Simon forecast higher than normal turnout next week. Primary election turnout is usually considerably lower than in the November general election; the last time more than 20 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in a primary was in 1998.
“There’s definitely an uptick in voting” this year, and this week could be the busiest, said Mark Krupski, who oversees Olmsted County elections. Contested statewide and congressional races and a Rochester mayoral campaign with seven candidates are driving interest, he said.
Hennepin County had accepted 15,300 ballots as of Monday. The final count before the 2016 primary: 8,000.
That increase “does presage a higher level [of participation] in this primary than we typically see,” said Ginny Gelms, the county elections manager.
As of last Thursday, Hennepin County had sent out 23,891 absentee ballots.
Winona and Nobles county officials also have had more absentee ballot requests.
Some officials attribute the surge in absentee voting to increased familiarity with their availability, rather than a broadening interest in politics. The vote-from-home option that doesn’t require an excuse to use an absentee ballot was first used in Minnesota in 2014.
Other localities across the U.S. also report more activity.
Early voting in Michigan’s primary was 50 percent higher than in its 2014 midterm election. In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, voter registration among 18- to 29-year-olds is up 41 percent. Increasing participation among that age group became a focus in the state after the Feb. 14 shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school that killed 17 students and staff.
A national study released last month by TargetSmart, a data analysis company, found an increase of more than 4 percent in registrations from the same age group in Minnesota, though Simon said he doesn’t yet have complete statistics.
Because the state allows same-day registration, details about new voters won’t be available until after next Tuesday’s primary. But some county officials are noticing signs of the youth trend here.
“We’re seeing a lot [of new voters] who were born around 2000 for sure,” and many who were born in the 1990s, said Amanda Kiefer in Mower County. By last week, more absentee ballots for the primary had been accepted there than in all of 2016.
Totals from 2016 have also been surpassed in Blue Earth County, elections administrator Michael Stalberger said. “We noticed an uptick in folks born in 2000” and the late 1990s on voter forms, he said.
Joyce Kahl, who runs Morrison County’s elections, said that making it easier for people to register has contributed to voter participation. In Minnesota, when they apply for driver’s licenses and at some government offices. Online registration, she said, is popular among younger voters.
Phil Keisling, a former Oregon secretary of state who heads the Center for Public Service at that state’s Portland State University, cautioned against assuming that a rise in absentee ballots leads to increased turnout. “You are simply mode-shifting the method of voting,” he said.
Simon said he can’t be sure yet, but “I suspect — and it’s only a suspicion — that [the increases] will grow the pie” of voters.