Once regional, early voting has swept across Minnesota
As Minnesotans request a record 1.7 million absentee ballots before Election Day on Nov. 3, it’s clear early voting has transformed from being more common in the state’s sparsely-populated regions to an even greater staple of political engagement during a time of global pandemic.
Early voting has expanded wildly compared to the last two statewide elections, in urban, suburban and rural counties alike, transcending cultural distinctions between small towns and big cities.
Despite partisan disagreements over the safety and validity of mail-voting, both Republican and Democratic areas of the state have seen unprecedented growth in advanced voting, narrowing the window for campaigns to change the trajectory of their races as October wanes.
The evolution of Minnesota’s no-excuses absentee voting could signal high levels of voter enthusiasm and overall turnout during a high-stakes election:
2014 general election
Minnesota has used mail-in voting since before World War II. But 2014 was the first year voters were allowed to vote absentee without explicitly declaring a reason for doing so, effectively giving all Minnesotans the choice to vote early by mail or in person rather than at their polling place on Election Day.
But public awareness of the new law had yet to fully catch on, and absentee voting remained most widely adopted in sparsely-populated areas of northern and western Minnesota.
2016 general election
Use of early voting in Minnesota jumped considerably during the 2016 general election — the first presidential election year in which no-excuse absentee balloting was available. Nearly a quarter of the state's voters took advantage.
The share of voters casting early ballots increased across the state, with more than half a million mail-in and in-person votes being cast before Election Day. As with 2014, rural counties again maintained the highest rates.
2018 general election
Although a similar proportion of voters cast absentee ballots in 2018 as did in 2016, early voting played a significant role in boosting Minnesota’s voter turnout during midterm election years, which had been sliding since the turn of the century.
Absentee voting rates continued to increase in northern Minnesota counties and those along the state's western edge. For instance, among the dozen counties comprising northwestern Minnesota, about 40 percent of voters cast absentee ballots.
Meanwhile, absentee voting in Hennepin and Ramsey counties represented just over a quarter of all ballots cast there.
2020 state primaries
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a dramatic shift in the way Minnesotans voted during the state's primary in August, with six out of every 10 ballots arriving absentee, all but five percent by mail.
The sudden expansion of early voting drove a huge increase in turnout. More Minnesotans voted absentee during the August primary in 2020 than voted in any form during the state's August primary in 2016. Early voting rates rose across the state, including in the Twin Cities metro area, where adoption had been slower.
And even amid concerns of the system being strained under the influx of mail-in ballots, relatively few were rejected or arrived late.
2020 general election
With less than two weeks remaining before this year’s general election, nearly one million absentee ballots have been turned in by voters and accepted – and they’re coming from across the state.
Some of the largest increases in absentee voting are still in rural counties, though notably less so in many of those northwestern counties where adoption was already relatively high.
At the current pace, absentee balloting alone is set to shatter turnout records in Minnesota.
The massive spike in absentee balloting could also indicate significant voter enthusiasm this year, particularly among those who usually vote for Democrats.
In Minnesota’s state primary this year, the large increase in absentee ballots cast was accompanied by a rise in Democratic turnout. For instance, in Minnesota’s U.S. Senate primary, the number of Democratic votes more than doubled Republican totals.
Additionally, about 40 percent of the entire primary vote was comprised of absentee ballots from the nine counties Hillary Clinton won in 2016. This year, those same counties represent almost two-thirds of accepted absentee ballots ahead of the general election Nov. 3.
Democrats are also more likely to vote early. A recent Minnesota Poll found 61 percent of those surveyed intend to vote on Election Day, including just 46 percent of Democrats, while 78 percent of Republicans would wait to vote in person.
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Source: Minnesota Secretary of State