Minneapolis voting machines are lined up in rows, voting booths are shrink-wrapped and bins of "I Voted" stickers wait on shelves in a fluorescent-lit warehouse. Across the river, election workers started doling out stickers Tuesday as St. Paul kicked off early voting.
With one week to go, the Twin Cities are preparing for Election Day and encouraging people to cast their ballots early. In St. Paul, voters will elect a new mayor for the first time in 12 years and fill school board posts. Minneapolis voters will face a longer slate of candidates, with the mayor, City Council, Park Board and Board of Estimate and Taxation on the ballot this year.
Despite fierce competition in many of the races and months of candidate forums and campaigning, voter turnout drops off in years when there are only local elections, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman acknowledged Tuesday at an early voting event where he and school board officials cast their ballots.
"But we know that those elections are really as important as any other election we can possibly vote in," Coleman said. "It will really determine the direction of our city and the direction of our school system over the coming years. And so it is critically important that people vote."
Ten people are angling to replace Coleman, who is not running for a fourth term, and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges is running for re-election against 15 challengers.
In Minneapolis, elections officials' goal this year is to do better than four years ago, when it took more than two days to declare Hodges the winner in a 35-candidate pool.
"We learned a lot from 2013," said Grace Wachlarowicz, Minneapolis' director of elections and voter services. This year, she said, "we're hoping to do it within one day."
Before a single ballot is cast in Minneapolis on Nov. 7, the city's 132 voting machines will each have been tested twice, driven to one of the polling places and locked up to wait for the big day. The pre-election choreography is meant to ensure that ballots cast on Election Day — and before, at the city's early voting center — are counted quickly and accurately.
In St. Paul, the process will take longer because officials have opted to hand-count the ballots. The first round of results in the ranked-choice mayor's race will be announced election night. But the redistribution of voters' second- through sixth-place choices — which are expected to be a deciding factor — will not start until later in the week and the final results are not expected until Nov. 11.
Nearly 6,000 people have already voted in Minneapolis, compared to about 3,000 total early voters in 2013. In St. Paul, 2,369 people had cast ballots as of Tuesday morning.
Voters in both cities have been able to submit absentee ballots in person since Sept. 22, but only at one designated location in each city.
This is the first St. Paul race for which there are four early voting locations in the city the week before the election, along with two in Ramsey County suburbs. People who vote before Nov. 6 do not have to vote at their designated precinct. They can go to any of the six locations in the county.
Minneapolis residents can cast their ballots at one location: the Early Voting Center at 217 3rd St. S.
Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky said there was only one location for early voting last year in St. Paul, and on the day before the election, getting through the line there took an hour and 15 minutes. Ramsey County will add even more early voting locations in the city and suburbs next year, Mansky said.
"A lot more people are going to opt to vote early," he said. "You open the locations and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more convenient you make it, the more people will do it."