In the little southeastern Minnesota town of Bellechester, population 177, holding elections can be kind of a pain.

The town straddles two counties -- Goodhue and Wabasha. It must have at least two election judges from each county, but the Wabasha side has only 29 mostly older residents, so recruiting judges to sit all day waiting for some fraction of 81 registered voters to dribble in is a daunting challenge.

So Bellechester is considering leaving its community center closed in the next election and joining the growing number of Minnesota precincts where voters receive and cast ballots by mail.

"We think we'll save at least $600," said City Clerk Jill Buxengard, who added that she hopes it'll boost turnout by making voting more convenient for the elderly residents who make up, by her estimate, about 60 percent of Bellechester's population.

Since 1987, when voting by mail was first allowed in small, isolated Minnesota precincts, the practice has grown slowly and steadily to now include 535 mostly rural townships and small cities, or about 13 percent of all precincts.

Minnesota is one of 17 states that allow certain elections to accept mail ballots, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Two other states -- Oregon and Washington -- handle all elections that way.

Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said the state's rising number of mail precincts is part of a growing national trend of expanding early voting options to make the process more convenient and efficient. "In many states we don't have a voting day any more; we have a voting period," Ritchie said.

A primary advantage

In places with mail voting, election managers send ballots to all registered voters up to 20 days before the election. Voters have until Election Day to mail them back postage paid or drop them off at the county courthouse.

Minnesota lawmakers first allowed the practice at the request of Kittson County, in the state's northwest corner.

"The county auditor was very worried about the decline in their voting percentage," Ritchie said. "The population was getting older, they have blizzards, and some voters had to drive 60 or 70 miles."

Mail voting did increase turnout, particularly in primary elections when people are less inclined to go to the polls.

For example, in the nine Blue Earth County townships that switched to mail voting, turnout in the 2008 primary was more than double that in the 2004 primary, when voting was conducted in person, county officials said.

So far, the state has limited the practice to precincts outside the 11-county Twin Cities metro area with fewer than 400 registered voters, and metro-area precincts with fewer than 50 registered voters. In the metro area, only two precincts have mail balloting, both in Washington County.

Kent Sulem, general counsel and primary lobbyist for the Minnesota Association of Townships, said "caps" limiting mail voting were to satisfy legislators who weren't sure it was a good idea. Some opponents saw it as an invitation to fraud. Others saw it as an erosion of the quintessential civic experience of gathering to vote.

"Since the primary need was in small, rural places, the idea was, 'Let's start there,'" Sulem said. Now, larger precincts would like the option, too. On their behalf, Sulem's organization and the League of Minnesota Cities have for several years advocated raising the cap from 400 to 1,000 registered voters.

Ritchie said he supports that effort. Mail voting saves local governments money during these difficult economic times, he said, and allows voters to "sit and think about their decision and research and read."

He said it's worked efficiently so far and has shown itself to be as secure as the widely used absentee-ballot system, in which voters with an excuse can cast ballots before the election, in-person or by mail. He added that Oregon has used mail balloting for decades without evidence of significant fraud.

A sweeping change

In the years before Koochiching County started mailing ballots to isolated precincts near the Canadian border, the three dozen or so registered voters of Cingmars Township exercised their civic duty in the living room of Richard and Inez Hardwig's farmhouse, about 10 miles southeast of Littlefork.

"We got a lot of visiting done," Inez Hardwig, 83, recalled last week. She was one election judge. Betty Nemec, who lives a mile down the road, was another.

Now they are among the 779 county residents who vote by mail. Both fondly recall the old days, but both also see advantages to the new ways.

"It's an efficient way to vote in this day and age, when everybody is busy," Nemec said. "And I think you get more people voting, because that ballot is there to remind you the election is coming up."

Said Hardwig: "We don't have to be there all day, and if you don't want to sweep your floors, you don't have to."

Larry Oakes • 612-673-1751