Early voting is hitting an all-time high in Minnesota in the wake of new, no-excuses-needed voting policies here and across the country that are making it easier than ever for campaigns to lock down votes long before Election Day.
Some 27 states now allow voters to cast absentee ballots weeks ahead of time without having to give an excuse for why they can't vote in person on Nov. 4. Other states go further, opening their polls early and even offering weekend voting times.
This loosening of voting restrictions has put traditional get-out-the-vote efforts on steroids. For campaigns on both sides, it's fast becoming a way of energizing midterm voters who can be hard to motivate in years when the president is not on the ballot.
In Minnesota, the state has seen almost double the number of voters requesting absentee ballots. As of Thursday, the state reports 152,070 ballots are out and 69,561 have been returned. That compares to 42,052 ballots returned that same week in 2010 — the last off-year election when voters had to give counties a reason for requesting an early ballot. Nationally, some 19 million voters cast early ballots in 2010's midterm elections and experts expect this year's numbers to eclipse that.
The 2014 election marks the first time Minnesotans have been able to cast a ballot early without having to swear under penalty of perjury that they were unable to go to the polls for one of several specific reasons.
The law change has also given campaigns fresh ways to come at specific blocs of voters: college students, Indians and older voters who sometimes find it physically difficult to get to the polls.
On college campuses, DFLers and Republicans are canvassing hard, generating hundreds of absentee ballots that will be sent to dorm rooms and college housing so the young adults can send in their ballots without having to traipse anywhere on Election Day.
In Minnesota's Indian Country, a nonprofit organization has opened five satellite offices in separate counties on the state's most populous reservations to help voters apply for absentee ballots ahead of Nov. 4.
On the state's big three reservations — Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth — there are from 12,000 to 18,000 eligible voters who just two years ago had to drive as far as 40 miles to a county seat to cast a ballot.
Campaigns receive almost real-time information on who is taking advantage of the no-excuses absentee laws, with canvassers and doorknockers tailoring lists nightly, dropping names of those who have voted and coming back at those who haven't.
Alexandra Fetissoff, spokeswoman for Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken's campaign, said the effort helps them better target their resources. "As Al often says, 'We don't have to worry about you if you've already voted.' We don't want to be really annoying. If you vote, we will leave you alone after that. We want to make sure voting is accessible for every Minnesotan."
Boon or bane?
DFL activists generally favor making it easier to vote in the midterms. Many of the party's most ardent fans — including young people — only pay attention when a presidential candidate is on the ballot. DFLers here are using the looser rules on absentee voting to get their constituents to the polls, reminding them that a governor, U.S. senator, several other statewide races and a DFL statehouse majority are hanging in the balance.
Republicans are using the new tool as well — the party has changed its Twitter icon to a sign that says "I Voted Early" — although some don't see it as an unqualified good.
"There are plenty of debates to be had about the merits of early voting on its face. Is it an actual good thing to vote for candidates 45 days before the election, when lots of things can transpire?" said Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey. "But the reality for us in this election is there is a 45-day window and we have … an obligation and an opportunity to reach more voters."
Without giving away their secrets, Downey said the party has developed ways of targeting undecided voters by looking at demographics, neighborhoods and whether they cast votes in 2010 and 2012. Voter identification models employed by both parties have gotten increasingly sophisticated, looking at the cars voters drive, the magazines they subscribe to, their posts and likes on Facebook and the neighborhoods they live in to predict habits.
"We have a great idea of who is a swing voter," said Kendal Killian, campaign manager for Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan in the Eighth Congressional District.
A Star Tribune analysis on Thursday showed older voters outpacing everyone else in the ballots returned so far. Voters older than 65 account for more than 60 percent of all ballots accepted.
In northern Minnesota, Bret Healy, a consultant for the nonprofit group Four Directions, negotiated agreements with five counties — Itasca, Cass, Mahnomen, Beltrami and Becker — to open up satellite offices on the Red Lake, White Earth and Leech Lake Reservations. Four Directions raised money to pay for the offices so the counties wouldn't be financially strained.
Minnesota was easy to work with, he said, noting that in Montana his group has been forced to file a lawsuit over the refusal of counties there to open voting centers in Indian Country.
Traditionally, Indians have low turnout rates in midterm elections. The Minnesota effort, which is being advertised in tribal newspapers, has yielded roughly 5,200 absentee ballot requests in the five counties affected, though officials were not able to break down how many will go to the reservations. In the last two elections, Minnesota's top races were decided by a far narrower margin.
Because all this is new here, campaigns say their efforts are mostly about educating people that they don't have to revert to their old ways and either head to a ballot booth on Election Day or skip voting.
"I found it refreshing a few weeks ago when I had someone knock at my door and ask if we were going to be voting absentee," said John Ongaro, who works for St. Louis County. "I said, 'No, I believe in voting at the booth on Election Day. [It's] a social experience.' "
Allison Sherry • 202-383-6120