Rhonda Rother knows she's voting for President Donald Trump, but the Vermillion Township resident is waiting to see if COVID-19 cases spike before deciding whether to cast her ballot by mail or in person.

Sonja Buckner of Apple Valley knows she will be voting for Joe Biden but is also unsure how she will do it.

"I usually go to the polls," Buckner said. "I know it counts. Right now I'm stuck in the middle. I have a ballot at home. I have not put it in."

Even as early voting starts Friday, many Minnesotans are weighing concerns about the coronavirus, mail service and ballot integrity as they decide how and when to vote. Meanwhile, Democratic and Republican political strategists say voters seem to be picking sides sooner, and campaigns are ramping up their spending long before November to lock in support as early voting kicks off.

"We expect a significant amount of votes in this race to be cast in the first three to four weeks, right after early votes start," said Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin. If candidates are waiting to engage voters until October, he added, "You're already way behind."

A sign of the early push will be seen on Friday, when both Trump and Biden will converge on Minnesota just as voting kicks off. Their campaign stops follow a rash of appearances by surrogates and family members on both sides, including former Second Lady Jill Biden, Trump son Donald Trump Jr. and his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump.

The campaigns also are pouring millions into Minnesota over the next two months to win over the narrowing slice of undecided voters and encourage potential supporters not to sit out the election.

Trump lost Minnesota by less than 45,000 votes in 2016 and has made the state a top priority this year. He plans to devote more money to advertising in Minnesota than to the key Midwest battleground states of Michigan and Wisconsin, where Biden has recently gained ground in some polls. Trump is scheduled to spend $14 million on ads here between Sept. 1 and Election Day, compared to Biden's $5 million, according to Advertising Analytics.

But even as early voting gets underway, Trump has sought to discredit mail-in ballots, suggesting that they are ripe for fraud. Researchers have repeatedly found there is not evidence of widespread fraud among mailed ballots.

As the campaigns jockey for early advantage, Trump has suggested people should vote twice, by mail and in person, which is prohibited by U.S. elections law in federal elections. Democrats allege that the Trump camp is purposely trying to sow confusion about mail-in voting, which the president has said favors Democrats.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Trump "wants chaos" to undermine the legitimacy of mail-in voting, which has spread in popularity during the pandemic.

"Part of this is getting people to look at what the real rules are, learning them themselves, looking at the Secretary of State's website and then following those rules," Klobuchar said. "Because there is a whole bunch of disinformation out there, including from the president, who wants to mess it up."

U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, described a growing "intensity" around elections integrity. Despite the pandemic, he and Trump campaign staff say they anticipate Republicans will prefer to vote in-person this year. Emmer noted the Republican National Committee is involved in legal challenges in 17 states aimed mostly at mail-in voting rules or ensuring that only legitimate voters cast ballots.

"There are a lot of Minnesotans who want to make sure that when they vote for Donald Trump, that vote actually is counted and that it's not canceled out by someone who is voting a ballot that they shouldn't be voting," Emmer said.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said Trump's comments about fraud and voting twice have made more work for his office as they try to counter the claims.

Meanwhile, the elections office is preparing to handle a historic number of ballots submitted by mail.

Simon estimates that as many as 1.2 million Minnesotans — more than a third of all voters — will use the absentee process this November.

He is urging voters to order their mail ballots as soon as possible and not to "wait until mid-October when election administrators are most stressed."

His office is about to embark on its own paid media blitz to remind voters of the different ways to vote.

Alison Schneider of Apple Valley was surprised to hear about another option — voting early in person at her local elections office. She initially requested a mail-in ballot because she was concerned about the coronavirus. But Schneider, a Biden backer, said she changed her mind after hearing about Postmaster General Louis DeJoy's recent service overhaul, including removing some mail-sorting machines and mailboxes.

DeJoy came under fire for cost-cutting measures critics said could undercut the agency's ability to handle election mail. He paused the changes until after Nov. 3 but did not say he would reverse some cuts that were already made.

Schneider stopped by her local post office in Apple Valley last week to mail some hand-me-down clothes to a relative. But she said her vote is another matter.

"I will be physically going to the polls," she said. "I don't think I would trust the Postal Service with a critical mail item."

Traci Sandstrom of Hampton also plans to vote in person. Living in a small town, she's less worried about the pandemic or crowded polling stations than she is about the mail.

Sandstrom briefly worked as a rural postal carrier and said she has never experienced delivery issues like what she is seeing now. A couple times a week, she said, her mail does not arrive at all.

But Simon said he believes the Postal Service can handle the increased volume of mail-in ballots, noting that it is not that big of an increase when compared with the amount of mail the service processes during the holidays.

Election mail is predicted to amount to less than 2% of the total mail volume between mid-September and Election Day, said Nicole Hill, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service in Minneapolis.

Starting in October, the agency will engage standby resources in all areas of its operations to ensure it meets demands.

Hill said the Postal Service "has more than enough capacity, including collection boxes and processing equipment, to handle all election mail this year."

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044

Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755