Susan Truesdell, a mother of two from Champlin, is planning to stray from her typical voting routine this year.
"With concerns of COVID I have been avoiding taking them to public places as much as I can," she said of her two children, ages 3 and 5.
And after the 37-year-old read about the "horror stories of other states closing polling locations," she said she didn't want to risk that happening in Minnesota. So she and her husband, Justin, completed the online absentee application July 23 and received ballots within a week.
They will be among a record number of Minnesotans this year who are voting by mail, seeking to avoid the long lines and crowds seen at polling places in other states amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Voters across the state have requested 10 times as many absentee ballots for the upcoming Aug. 11 primary election as in the primary election four years ago. As of Friday, about 545,830 absentee ballots had been requested, according to the Secretary of State's Office. At that point in 2016, there were 25,930 ballot requests; in 2018, there had been about 54,265 requests by the end of July.
Secretary of State Steve Simon, who has sought to expand mail-in voting, said election officials statewide "anticipated this tidal wave of absentee ballots."
"They have all reported that they are seeing record levels of absentee ballot requests," he said.
Hennepin County Election Manager Ginny Gelms said the turnout for this primary looks to be historic largely in part because of the surge in absentee ballots.
"It's off the charts," she said. "In a typical year — obviously this year is anything but typical for a number of reasons — this would be our lowest turnout event. But given the response we've seen in the mail … there is a possibility to see record-breaking turnout for the primary."
So far, 218,000 ballots have been sent to voters in Hennepin County. In 2016, only 8,000 absentee ballots were cast in the primary, and 203,400 in the general election.
"There's kind of this perfect storm going on in the elections world right now to make this a really, really incredible year," she added.
In Ramsey County, more than 81,000 absentee ballots have been mailed out so far, compared with about 2,400 in the 2016 primary, according to Election Manager David Triplett. Absentee ballots have steadily increased by 2 to 3% in recent years, especially since Minnesota started no-excuse absentee voting in 2014. But Triplett said "the pandemic has been an accelerator in that trend."
Some rules have been relaxed to accommodate the uptick in mail voting. For registered voters, the state dropped the witness requirement to vote by mail in the primary election. Election judges were given an additional week to start counting absentee ballots, and voters get more time to mail them in.
As long as a mail-in or absentee ballot is postmarked by Aug. 11, and received two days later, it will be counted. But Simon cautioned voters to not wait until Aug. 11 to mail ballots. "Give yourself at least a week, so I would mail it no later than Thursday, August 6," he said, adding there's always the option of dropping it off at the polls if unable to meet that deadline.
Republicans at the state and national level, particularly President Donald Trump, have resisted the expansion of mail-in voting, raising questions about the potential for fraud or mishandling of ballots. But Democrats argue that there has been scant evidence of abuse in the five states that currently conduct all elections entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah.
Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature blocked a measure by Simon earlier this year to automatically send voters absentee ballots for the general election. The issue is now before a state court in response to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and the NAACP.
Minnesotans can still go to the ballot box, too. The state has 3,000 polling places, and that number has not been reduced. It is also maintaining its normal cadre of 30,000 election judges, with safety precautions in place. Officials have ordered 8,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, 225,000 disposable masks for voters plus 50,000 masks for election judges.
But voters won't be required to wear masks, Simon said. They will be asked to wear them and offered free masks. If they refuse, curbside voting could be the next available option.
"No one should stand in their way of voting. It's a constitutional right. You can't tie a constitutional right to the wearing of a mask," he said, adding that it's up to counties and cities to determine if violators of the mask mandate will be cited.
The astronomical number of absentee ballot requests, however, suggests voters are taking the pandemic seriously. Early on, Simon urged Minnesotans to vote by mail as a public health service.
"The rush to vote from home has been exciting and gratifying because people are getting the message that it is a safe and secure option for voting," he said.
Among those taking advantage is 31-year-old Casey Russell, who last voted absentee in the 2008 presidential election when she was attending the University of Vermont. The business analyst living in Minneapolis didn't expect to vote absentee again — until COVID-19.
"I normally like going to the polls. It's a big thing in my family. My mom's always an election judge," she said. "But I have asthma and it just didn't make sense to go stand in line and do it the normal way."
Voters seeking assurances about their mail-in votes can get more information at the state's website, mnvotes.org, where there is a tool to track the status of individual ballots.
"Minnesota is the reigning national champion for voter participation for two elections in a row, 2018 and 2016," Simon said. "So I have every reason to believe we can get there again. I'm certainly seeing the same kind of energy and intensity on all sides of the political spectrum to vote, despite the challenges of COVID-19."
Kim Hyatt• 612-673-4751