Amid a historic Minnesota election with record early voting totals, a steady stream of Minnesotans continued to cast their ballots until the polls closed Tuesday evening, many of them saying the stakes were higher than ever.
Though lines were reported early at many polling places, they largely faded a steady trickle of voters as more than 1.8 million people has already cast and returned absentee ballots. By the time the polls closed at 8 p.m., the majority of voters had long since returned home while volunteers dismantled polling stations.
Hussein Jama walked out of Edison High School in northeast Minneapolis to the sound of applause from poll workers. It was 8 p.m., and he was the last voter to cast a ballot here as the doors closed behind him.
Jama, 40, had been out of state all day working in transport, and didn’t know if he would make it in time. “I was a little bit nervous,” he said.
Four minutes before polls closed, Sammy Patzner, 28, had finally made up her mind. “It’s been a tough one for me,” she said. “I don’t follow politics very deeply.”
Waiting till the end of the day, “it gave me the rest of the day to think about” who she wanted to win the presidency. When she looked over her options, she was stunned by what she saw. “I was surprised Kanye West was on the ballot,” she said.
“I just wanted to make sure that I at least voted,” she added. “All I know is that I didn’t vote for Kanye.”
Judith Rodgers and her team of election workers were starting to take signs down as Tom Payne cast his ballot, the final voter before the polls closed at Edina-Morningside Community Church. The 44-year-old said he’s “nonpolitical” and wasn’t even certain who he would vote for when he walked into the polling site before casting a vote for Biden.
“I think change would be good,” he said.
He just hopes the winner of the election unifies the country and heals the division.
“I’m looking forward to this being over,” he said. “We just want to see this behind us. I’ve never seen more people treat other people with malice ... based on who they voted for.”
As Rodgers and the polling site staff packed up boxes, she said more than 370 voters had cast ballots on Tuesday but hundreds more voted absentee. She said there were no technology issues, COVID compliance concerns or voter intimidation. Although representatives from both parties sent challengers to observe.
She guessed the Edina precinct will hit a record for voter turnout topping 85%.
“It’s more than expected,” she said. “It’s very much ‘We the people.’”
Secretary of State Steve Simon said that the record 1,839,710 absentee ballots accepted through Monday evening accounted for 62% of the total turnout for 2016. Another 297,482 requested absentee ballots remained outstanding.
There was a line outside St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in West St. Paul on Tuesday morning before the polls opened but after that, voters streamed in steadily throughout the day. “It’s been actually smooth,” said Deb Most, who managed the polling site, which had more than 800 voters by 5 p.m.
Minneapolis had surpassed 2018 totals by 12:30 p.m., with 76% voter turnout. Some 60% of voters cast their ballots early in the city, and election offials reported that everything was running smoothly on Election Day. Simon said he anticipated voter turnout to remain in the high 70 % range, higher than average but short of the record 83 % turnout set in 1956.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison tweeted midafternoon that “all reports are that voting is running smoothly” in Minnesota.
One notable exception to that was in Farmington, where the line stretched for four blocks outside the Rambling River Center by midafternoon. Officials said they didn’t have enough election judges because of COVID-19 so they crammed six precincts into two polling places.
The head election judge enlisted city of Farmington employees to work the polls, said Rich Schimmel, an engineer with the city working the polls for the first time.
Across the street from the long lines, a preschool put on patriotic music and gave voters “a little dance show to keep them entertained,” said Becky Labeau, owner of Cornerstone Preschool and Childcare, as a handful of kids bopped around on the sidewalk.
Gov. Tim Walz, who had already voted by mail, told Minnesotans to mask up, socially distance and stay in line, at a brief Election Day news conference on the Capitol steps as he encouraged the state to vote and “be heard.” If you’re in line, your vote will get counted, Walz said.
“If it takes until midnight, we will be there,” he said, noting Minnesotans can register to vote at the polls today under state law.
Ahlia Khan, 19, of Coon Rapids, voted for Democrat Joe Biden in her first presidential election at tiny True North Church — and in a precinct that President Donald Trump won by 2 percentage points in 2016.
“I feel like we’re going to divide as a nation after today,” Khan said. “But I wanted to at least put in my opinion. Also, my mom called me,” she said with a laugh.
Khan said she believes Trump was good for the economy, but Biden is far better from a “community” standpoint.
Jonathan Broden brought his two daughters, Madyson Broaden, 20, and Danielle Broaden, 18, for their first time voting in their Apple Valley precinct, where short lines after the polls opened were gone by 8 a.m.
The family is split, with Jonathan and Danielle voting for Trump, and Madyson voting for Biden.
“We respect each other’s decision,” Jonathan said. “It was a really cool thing to do together today.”
Voting for the first time, both Madyson and Danielle thought the process was much easier and less intense than they’d expected.
“I thought I would see more masks with people’s political beliefs,” Madyson said, pointing to her dad’s mask, which read “defend the police.”
Hennepin County Elections Manager Ginny Gelms said she’s heard it’s “pretty quiet” at the polls which she expected given that the county already issued 618,000 absentee ballots and accepted more than 521,000.
Gelms reported no incidents of intimidation or significant equipment problems. An election judge in Corcoran had to speak with a voter who wore or carried campaign paraphernalia to the polling place, but the person voted and left, she said.
Several polling places, including Corcoran, reported jammed ballot counters.
“It was not a very good morning,” said Jessica Beise, the city’s administrative services director. The machine at Corcoran City Hall jammed just minutes after doors opened to a line of voters waiting outside. “Especially right when you first open. We tested it over and over.” Officials got a second back up machine up and running as about 15 voters waited.
It took some acrobatics and a bit of mechanical ingenuity, but officials at the Shorewood Community and Event Center were able to fix a ballot machine that jammed around 7:25 a.m. within an hour.
“We figured it out and we’re better for it,” said Laurie Sacchet, who was working at the polling site. In the hours after? “Very smooth sailing,” she said.
For Cyndi Hovey, 28, casting a vote was just one way to do her civic duty Tuesday. An hour before polls closed, Hovey was stationed outside the Whittier Recreation Center in Minneapolis, where she had been since 7 a.m.
The chair of the Whittier neighborhood alliance, she joined fellow neighbors to hand out hot coffee and snacks to voters.
“Casting a vote is incredibly important, but building those connections across ages, across races, across experiences, is what brings the change that happens at a ballot box into play,” she said.
Kaleb Coryell helped himself to the coffee after voting. “This is a vote against fascism,” said the 27-year-old, who described himself as “far left.”
“Finding a candidate that’s going to protect our environment, finding a candidate that is going to protect us, either socialized healthcare, socialized medicine, making sure that the bottom line is taken care of,” were some the issues that compelled him to come to the polls — despite his feeling that voting is an “outdated” process.
“We should have a forum. We have the technology now, we can virtually talk,” he said. “That being said, it felt very empowering that my voice is being counted.”
Across the state
In Hibbing at the Greyhound Bus Museum, election judges said a line wrapped around the building starting at 6:30 a.m. By 9 a.m., only a short line remained and 200 people had already cast their ballots, including Ben Erickson, a 33-year-old miner who voted for Trump.
He cited the president’s steel tariffs as the main issue driving his vote. “It’s pretty easy to know which candidates around here support our business, support our economics,” he said.
In Mountain Iron, Cindy Forseen, 66, used to work in the mine. She voted for Trump, just like she did in 2016.
“He did what he said he was going to do,” Foreseen said. She was on CNN last year talking about the president’s political strength in the region. “This area was so depressed,” she said.
At University of Minnesota Duluth many first time voters were out in force. Sophomore Austin Nevala of Coon Rapids said the coronavirus pushed him to vote for Biden. “I had part of my first year of college taken away.”
Morrison County, in central Minnesota, was the reddest county in Minnesota in the 2016 election with 74% of voters casting ballots for Trump.
From signs along the highways and chats with voters, not much has changed in the area.
For Trump voter Sue Gross, the most important issue was “Life. If you’re not going to vote for somebody who’s anti-abortion, nothing else matters,” said Gross, who cast her vote for Trump at the fire hall in the Morrison County town of Bowlus. “There is no other viable candidate.’
Commercial beekeeper Jim Oberton has one of the rare Biden signs out in the area. He’s troubled by the president’s divisiveness and handling of the pandemic. “He doesn’t even attempt to be president for all. He’s just for his people.”
In Buffalo, Minn., 20-year-old Dalton Mortensen was a first-time voter, and left the polling place at the Buffalo Covenant Church with a measure of relief.
“Nerve-racking and anxiety,” he said of the experience, as his parents beamed with pride. His mother, Melissa Hahn, prays the days ahead will be calm. “I hope that people use some common sense and they don’t think that if their candidate doesn’t win they have to go out and burn down buildings and riot. Agree to disagree but be mature about it.”
Liz Ekholm, 70, of Richfield has worked election polling sites since 1990 but this year, she noticed more younger residents in their 30s and 40s stepping up to man the election site at Woodlake Lutheran Church in Richfield.
“Most judges are young and I haven’t seen that in years,” Ekholm said. “When I started, I was the young one. I’d like to believe it’s a new trend.”
She added that three older election judges bailed because of COVID concerns. There were no lines and only a couple voters at the church one hour before the polls closed, but Ekholm, who volunteered at city hall for early voting, said it seems like most voters cast ballots early, with the line of voters stretching two and a half hours long on Monday outside city hall.
“I think people were anticipating huge lines (on Election Day),” she said. “I know the turnout is massive.”
Mark Gerdes, 64, of Richfield considers himself an Independent, though his last vote for a Democrat was Walter Mondale. While he voted for Trump in 2016, he voted this year for Brock Pierce, frustrated with both Republicans and Democrats.
“I can’t stand him (Trump) but that doesn’t mean I like the other guy,” said the truck driver, who stopped on his way home from work to cast his ballot at Hope Presbyterian Church two hours before the polls closed. “We’re so polarized now.”
Voters at several polling places described this election as different: It’s more polarized. It’s more intense.
Neil Duffney and Dustin Kimmes, both 30, said they wanted to vote in person to see their ballot counted. Both had just voted for Biden at Rosemount Community Center Tuesday morning. In 2016, both men voted third party. They didn’t think Trump would win and they felt Hillary Clinton represented just more of the same, establishment politics.
Duffney used to consider himself a true independent, having voted both sides of the ticket in previous elections. He voted straight down the Democratic ticket Tuesday.
“This time, I’m really dissatisfied with the Republican Party,” he said. “I don’t like the rhetoric of Trump. “
They are both fans of Bernie Sanders, but even though the Vermont senator didn’t win the Democratic Party nomination, they never considered not voting this election.
“It was too important not to vote for Biden,” Duffney said. “I don’t believe that we should be restricting or limiting more people’s rights, we should be moving forward not backward.”
The U.S. Justice Department said Monday that federal officials are being sent to monitor for potential election law violations in Minneapolis as part of an 18-state Election Day operation. Minneapolis Elections Director Grace Wachlarowicz said she’s had no contact with DOJ observers before or during voting, but they are welcomed. “We have nothing to hide.”
The federal monitors will be watching for and documenting any cases of voter intimidation or lack of access for voters with disabilities. The department did a similar sweep for the general election in 2016, fanning out across 28 states, but did not go to Minnesota. The last time federal monitors observed an election in Minneapolis was 2004, according to Simon’s office.
Walz tried to quell fears about potential unrest, even as some Twin Cities businesses boarded up their buildings or announced plans to hire additional security.
Walz said boarded-up buildings are not a “self-fulfilling prophecy. We are just preparing,” he said. Anyone threatening voters is showing disrespect for democracy, he added.
Peace at Floyd Memorial
About a dozen people quietly filtered past the flowers and murals on 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, pausing at the corner where George Floyd was killed.
Cozy Washington, an Army veteran who’s lived in the Twin Cities for 19 years, said she wasn’t sure what made her want to come back to the memorial for the first time in months on Election Day.
When she got to the site, and saw others like her silently taking it in, she realized she had come to pray.
“I’m just hoping for a better tomorrow,” she said.
Washington, who was a physician assistant in the Army and worked in health care for more than 30 years, said she’s worried the country is slipping back into the unrest of the 1960s.
“I’m sad for all the kids who have to go through the pandemic and then watch all the adults in the room fight and be nasty to each other.”
She voted for Joe Biden by mail as soon as she got her ballot and has been avoiding crowds because of the pandemic. She’s friends with staunch Trump supporters and is hopeful the county may be less divided after the election.
“I’m heartbroken about the state of affairs in Minneapolis-St. Paul because I don’t want what we went through in the ‘60s to come to be.”
A few blocks away, in Powderhorn Park, neighbors and volunteers kept a more festive atmosphere.
Music blared on loudspeakers as some danced.
Teaj Fox, dressed in a glitzy Uncle Sam shirt, walked around on stilts waving rings to “bring up the vibe and entertain a little bit.”
Alejandro and Jenna Victoria, owners of Nico’s Tacos, handed out free burritos to voters, election workers and passersby, in partnership with World Central Kitchen. The Minneapolis restaurant has been working with the national nonprofit since the spring, getting meals to essential workers such as nurses and firefighters.
Lines to vote, and to pick up a free burrito, were longer during early voting periods than on Election Day, Jenna Victoria said.
Volunteers wearing “Democracy Defender” shirts stood off to the side of the polls at Powderhorn Park.
The group was made up of neighbors, worried that outside groups might come in to try to intimidate voters, said Pouya Najmaie, one of the group’s founders.
“We’re here just in case,” he said. “So far everything has been super calm. The election staff has been wonderful.”
Staff writers Sharyn Jackson, Greg Stanley, Jackie Crosby, Kelly Smith, Anthony Lonetree, John Reinan, Tim Harlow, Katie Galioto, Brooks Johnson and Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.