Six days before the election, rural Beltrami County resident Bob Wallner sat down at his kitchen table to vote.
Wallner lives in the rolling, wooded hills of Moose Lake Township, not far from the tiny village of Pennington. The township has only about 130 registered voters. In 1987, a change in state law allowed people in sparsely populated precincts to vote by mail. Moose Lake township officials decided that was more cost effective than paying election judges and heating up the old town hall.
Bob Wallner says voting by mail is convenient enough. But he misses the tradition of gathering with his neighbors on election day.
"It was always during deer season, of course," said Wallner. "I'd run down and vote and I'd usually see some of the neighbors and find out how hunting was going and the election judges were neighbors, of course, and I'd visit with them. And they'd have the heat on in the town hall and it was nice and warm. And usually you'd sit there for awhile after you voted and talk."
Bob's wife, Roxie Wallner, feels the same way. She admits, though, that there are advantages to mail-in ballots. She says it's nice to be able to take her time voting. If she's not sure about a particular race or ballot question, she can spend a few days researching until she's comfortable with her vote.
But Roxie Wallner still refuses to drop her ballot in a mail box. She says that makes her feel too far removed from the process. Instead, Roxie hand delivers her ballot to the Beltrami County seat in Bemidji, some 25 miles away.
"Then I know that I've done it," she said. "If I've done anything wrong I can ask them and make sure that I've done it correctly. It's pretty simple, but I can make mistakes. And I just don't want to make a mistake on that."
State officials say error rates on mail-in ballots do tend to be slightly higher than those cast in a polling place. Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer says that's one reason she isn't a big fan of mail-in voting. She says she understands and supports counties and townships that choose to save money by switching to mail-in ballots. But Kiffmeyer says mail-in voters don't have election judges to help them or electronic voting machines to catch errors.
"When you don't have that technology the voters misread, mismark, make mistakes. It happens," said Kiffmeyer. "And when you're able to have that technology, whether at the county or in the polling place, it's a tremendous advantage for those voters."
This year the federal government required that polling places have electronic voting machines. The state of Minnesota got $35 million in federal funds to pay for it. Kiffmeyer says that was enough for every precinct in Minnesota, large or small, to buy the new machines. But many townships this year decided to switch to mail-in balloting rather than get the new machines.
In Beltrami County, the number of mail-in voters nearly doubled from two years ago. County Auditor-Treasurer Kay Mack says that's because financially strapped townships decided they couldn't afford the long term costs of electronic voting machines.
"The money was available to buy the machines, but what the Secretary of State doesn't want to talk about is the ongoing maintenance cost of that equipment," said Mack.
Mack says those maintenance costs are between $600 and $800 a year. She says that's a lot for small townships in Beltrami County, some of which have fewer than a dozen voters.
Proponents of mail-in voting say it gets more people involved in the political process. Turn-out tends to be higher. In Beltrami County, voter turn-out increased by at least 10 percent in precincts that made the switch to mail-in voting. Larry Zea lives in Moose Lake Township. Zea says mail-in voting makes participation easy.
"If the weather is bad and you've got to be someplace next Tuesday, then I don't have to worry about getting to the town hall," said Zea. "I'm still a youngster, I'm only 69. But we've got a lot of people that are over 80 in the township, and some of them don't drive. So it's convenience."
Mail-in voters began receiving their ballots two to three weeks ago. State officials say voters who don't like to vote by mail can still cast their ballots the old fashioned way on election day -- but only if they're willing to drive to their county auditor's office.