Minneapolis is gearing up for an election season like no other.

At a new election center off East Hennepin Avenue, the city is preparing for a surge of mail-in ballots as people avoid traditional polling places because of social distancing. And election officials there are ready to help — behind plexiglass or curbside — for people wishing to vote early in person.

"With the pandemic situation we are strongly encouraging all voters to apply for a ballot by mail and vote at home," said Grace Wachlarowicz, the city's director of elections and voter services, during a media tour on Thursday.

"However, we are here for voter service and any individual that needs to vote in person, we will provide that option for them safely and securely."

The city will send out more than 24,000 mail-in ballots on Friday to people who requested them for the state's primary election on Aug. 11. That's already 21% more than every mail-in ballot requested by city residents during the 2016 general election — and requests are still coming in.

The number could be much higher for the general election this fall, which is likely to have a higher turnout than the primary. Primary races in the city include a U.S. Senate seat, the area's congressional seat and school board members, in addition to a hotly contested special election for Sixth Ward City Council.

The city has offered in-person early voting in the past at City Hall. Early voting in the primary begins Friday at the new facility, at 980 E. Hennepin Av.

Some people wishing to vote early in person may need language assistance, Wachlarowicz said. Others may need in-person help because of physical or visual challenges.

The election center also offers curbside voting, which was previously available at City Hall.

"We've had on Election Day someone who broke their leg two days before the election [that was] curbside voting," Wachlarowicz said. "We even had a woman that was on her way to the hospital delivering a baby vote by curbside. So we take care of every voter and their needs."

Staff at the election center have been busy this week manually swapping out instructions in all 24,000 ballots Thursday after a last-minute change in election rules.

The Secretary of State's office announced Tuesday that it would be waiving the requirement for absentee voters to obtain a witness signature, following lawsuits arguing the requirement posed a health hazard.

"We learned this Monday afternoon. Today is Thursday," Wachlarowicz said. "We had to remove over 24,000 instructions and replace it with new instructions based on the new procedures."

She added, "We will be ready to mail them out tomorrow. I am very proud of my team."

Voters who do not live in Minneapolis can vote early at the county election office. For a list of locations, visit tinyurl.com/CountyEarlyVoting.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732

Twitter: @StribRoper