MINNEAPOLIS — Election Day is more than a month away but the voting was already underway Friday, as Minnesota kicked off its first presidential cycle where all voters across the state can cast their ballots early.
Politicians, their parties and election officials across Minnesota have spent months preparing for the start of early voting. And it could be a triple play: making it easier for residents to vote, boosting statewide turnout and giving candidates extra time to secure precious votes to win in tight legislative and congressional races across the state.
"I predict that we're going to see more people embrace this," Secretary of State Steve Simon said. "I just think it provides so much freedom and flex for busy people."
Simon has spent much of the summer trying to spread the word about one of the latest voting changes meant to make Election Day easier. Lawmakers passed it in 2014, allowing all voters to cast an absentee ballot for any reason in the six weeks leading up to the election, nixing the old requirement that they provide an excuse for why they couldn't make it to the polls .
But while it significantly increased Minnesota's use of absentee voting in its first year — nearly 200,000 voted absentee in 2014, up from 127,000 in 2010 — the state's voter turnout ranking slipped in 2014. Combined with the fervor surrounding a presidential election, Simon is confident a second try with early voting will put Minnesota atop the nation.
Minnesota is one of 34 states with some form of early voting and is one of the first to start accepting ballots. The expansion falls in line with the state's efforts to ease the voting process, like a same-day voter registration policy that just 10 other states have.
It's opened up a whole new way for candidates and political parties to get their supporters to the polls.
The work for Minnesota's Democratic party started months ago, as hundreds of staffers scattered across the state began contacting infrequent voters to convince them to register for an absentee ballot. Starting Friday, that effort turned to ensuring voters have either dropped their ballot in the mail or delivered it in person to an early voting center.
The Republican Party of Minnesota has emphasized some of that same outreach, despite Chairman Keith Downey's personal misgiving that early voting opens Minnesota up to more faulty registrations.
"But you play within the rules that you're given and you compete as hard as you can," he said. "What used to in the old days be a 72-hour get-out-the-vote operation is now effectively a 60-day get-out-the-vote program."
It's worth the effort when legislative races that will determine control of the Minnesota House and Senate can be decided by 100 votes or less.
"The more votes we can put in the bank before Election Day ... the more we can know with certainty whether voters are voting," DFL Chairman Ken Martin said.
In Minneapolis, election officials have been preparing for months, lining up four voting centers, training employees and finalizing forms and computer systems. It's up to local officials to decide whether to set up those centers or require voters to simply mail in their early ballots.
At one such early voting center in an old roofing warehouse in south Minneapolis, elections staff put the finishing touches on their setup Thursday. But unlike on Election Day, the ballots won't be fed into a counter. They'll be sealed and kept locked up until the final week before they're submitted for processing. That lets voters who change their mind get back a ballot for a redo.
Voters interested in learning what's required to register to vote early or apply for a ballot should visit the secretary of state's website at http://www.sos.state.mn.us/