MN Secretary of State Steve Simon answers your voting questions

People standing at voter booths spaced apart from each other.
Voters wear masks and maintain social distance Sept. 18, 2020 during early absentee voting at the Ramsey County Elections Office in St. Paul.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated: Sept. 21

Early in-person and mail-in absentee voting began in Minnesota this Friday. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the process a little different this year.

Minnesota’s top elections official, Secretary of State Steve Simon, joined us on this week’s Politics Friday to answer questions from the MPR News audience.

Here are a few of the most frequently asked voter questions, and Simon’s answers to them:

How many mail-in ballots are you expecting in the Nov. 3 election?

As of Sept. 18, the Secretary of State office already had 926,000 Minnesotans who requested to vote from home. At that rate, there’s going to be 1.2 million people voting from home this general election, Simon said.

In total, they’re expecting 3 million voters, with over a third of them voting from home. Recently, the SOS office sent out a mailing to 2.3 million Minnesotans who have not already requested an absentee ballot. “We’re urging people, if they can, to do that online and MNvotes.org, and not fill out the paper form,” said Simon. 

Why are you urging people to vote by mail?

The state elections office wants to help flatten the curve, and not only the COVID-19 curve, but also the absentee ballot curve. Even if they weren’t encouraging Minnesotan to vote by mail, many voters would still choose to vote from home. 

“So the question then comes up: do we want them to have it earlier or later? The answer is earlier. Do we want more people to do it online versus paper? The answer is online,” said Simon. 

To equally benefit the voter and county, Simon’s office wants to make sure they can get the votes in earlier. In the mailings that were sent out, they’ve clearly explained the vote from home process step-by-step and stated that voting from home is an option for everyone this November.

Are the county election offices prepared for this flood of mail traffic?

“Putting on an election is a team sport, so we are partners and teammates with counties and cities. Year in and year out in Minnesota we are blessed with leadership at the county level that by and large just does an outstanding job,” said Simon.

Election staff is ready, because of the steps the Legislature has taken to make their jobs easier. Minnesota has a fourteen day head start this year, so election staff can start opening and processing mail-in ballots 14 days ahead of Election Day. 

When you say processing the ballots, does that mean counting the ballots?

Processing the ballots means opening them and putting them in a machine, but not tallying them yet, Simon said. Tallying is left until Election Night after the polls have closed.

What if I decide I still don’t want to vote by mail? I want to go to my regular polling place on Nov. 3. Can I still do that?

“We will have all 3,000 polling places across Minnesota open, whether two people show up or millions and millions show up,” said Simon. 

Staff will be ready with PPE and other equipment to help people stay people safe. 

During the last primary election, the SOS office gave high-grade masks for all election judges and poll workers, and gave regular-grade masks for voters who did not have one.

The stations were highly sanitized and everyone was required to socially distance themselves from each other. Polling places are going to try to do the same thing for this election since the primary was so successful. Simon’s office has checked with election staff across the state to make sure they have what they need, and it looks like they do. However, one of the easiest ways voters can help make the polling place safer is to choose to vote from home, he said. 

There are some different rules for mail-in voting this year. What are they?

“In a normal year, the rule is that you got to get your ballot back by Election Day. But that’s not the rule this abnormal year,” said Simon. 

Because of a standing court order, voters can send their ballot as late as Election Day. As long as voters get the ballot in the mail by Nov. 3 and it’s received by Nov. 10, their vote will be counted.

“Every single Minnesotan voter has an automatic seven day cushion to get the ballot from Point A to Point B,” said Simon.

Given all that’s happened with the U.S. Postal Service recently, if a ballot arrives to an elections office after the deadline and it’s not the voter’s fault, how flexible are the local election officials allowed to be for the ballot to be counted?

There’s a short answer and a long answer. 

The short answer is the ballot has to get to the election offices by Nov. 10, and anything after that will not be counted under the law. 

“Am I disturbed and alarmed by some of what I’m seeing and observing reports from Washington about the postal service? Sure. Might there be some delays? Yes. But we in Minnesota have several workarounds, several ways to mitigate even those delays,” said Simon.

The best way to avoid delays is to order and turn in your ballot early and not wait until Election Day, because that’s when election officials are the busiest. 

“Now it’s everyone’s right to wait until Election Day to vote, either by mail or in person, but if you’re the kind of person who knows a week out, two weeks out, three weeks out who you’re going to vote for, and nothing and no one is really going to change your mind, get it in as soon as you can,” said Simon. 

Also, just because you received your ballot by mail, doesn’t mean you have to turn it in my mail. You can hand deliver it to your county or city election office or, with some limitations, you can give it to someone you trust to hand deliver it for you. Lastly, to provide voters some peace of mind, there is a feature on the Secretary of State’s website that lets you track your ballot so you can know for sure that your vote was counted.

What happens if you cast your vote early by mail, but then you change your mind? Is there a way to invalidate your mail-in ballot and vote in person?

In Minnesota this year, you can cancel your ballot up to 14 days before the election.

To do that, contact the local election office that sent your ballot. After they cancel your ballot, you can submit a new mail-in ballot early or cast your ballot in person on Election Day.

Some voters have called their local county courthouses and were told their usual polling place is not open this election. Why could that be?

A bill was passed recently in the Legislature that allowed counties and cities to change certain polling places if they may have been places that could potentially expose vulnerable people to COVID-19, such as nursing homes and schools. Everyone still has a physical polling place. To find your polling location, go to MNvotes.org and type in your address to see where to vote. 

What if something happens to the candidate that you voted early for such as they die or they are deemed ineligible to run for office? Can you recast your ballot?

Since the general state election is considered a partisan office, there would be a special election held in February with a new candidate/candidates, so the vote would not count. However on the federal level in the race for president, it would depend on at what stage the incident occurred.

The truth is, there is real debate about that,” said Simon. 

What if you vote early and then you pass away? Is your vote still counted? 

Your vote is not counted. You have to be an eligible voter by Election Day. “That goes for people who are 17 and not 18 yet, and by the same analogy that goes for people who were alive when they voted and not alive on Nov. 3,” said Simon.

And how will you know to invalidate their vote?

The state elections office works with the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Health and their death databases to check if a voter is alive or not. The cities and counties also do their own analysis about their voters’ deaths. 

How can you ensure that the person who used the mail-in ballot is eligible to vote and that the person who filled out the ballot is really the voter?

In Minnesota, when you order your absentee ballot, you have to supply some personal identifying information such as part of a social security number or driver’s license number. Unless the ballot is returned with the same identification information that was provided when you ordered your ballot, it will not be counted. 

“We have really good security in place and that’s only the first tier of security. The second tier is a barcode that is specific to every individual voter that accompanies a ballot and the third is a signature,” said Simon. 

When does early in-person voting begin?

Early in-person voting begins one week before Election Day in late October. This process of voting feels a lot like a typical Election Day meaning you go in, fill out your paper ballot and turn it in to the ballot counter. However, this is not your first opportunity to vote.

Your first opportunity to vote in-person is with early absentee voting which started Sept.18 — the process is slightly different.

Is there a need for additional volunteers to help out with the large volumes of expected absentee ballots this election?

It depends on the polling place. You could call your local election office and ask if they need help processing ballots or extra people to help out on Election Day. 

Is Minnesota using absentee ballot drop-off bins?

Minnesota election offices do have the option to use a drop-off bin, and many are, but it is not required. If you are dropping off your own ballot, you can turn it in to a drop box that is either staffed or not staffed. However, if you are dropping off someone else’s ballot, the box must be staffed. 

Will drop boxes have 24-hour security?

The SOS office advises counties and cities to practice maximum security and physical integrity, but Minnesota law is largely silent on the specifics. 

What if your signature has changed since the last time you registered to vote? Will it invalidate my vote? 

“The first thing that is looked at is whether that personal identifying information matches and if it does, that’s it, you don’t go to the next step,” said Simon. 

Signatures change for all sorts of reasons, such as you broke your hand and you write differently now. As long as your identifying information matches up, it is okay if your signature looks different than it originally was.

When do absentee ballots get mailed out?

Election offices began sending out absentee ballots on Sept. 18. 

What if you requested an absentee ballot but it never comes?

If a few weeks go by after Sept. 18 and you still haven’t received your absentee ballot, you should order another one.

Because of the large number of absentee ballots and because the effective deadline is seven days after Election Day, do you expect that we will know the results of the election on the night of Nov. 3?

Because of the special circumstances this election, we won’t have 100 percent of the ballots until Nov. 10, Simon said. However, just because election officials have not counted all of the votes yet, it doesn’t mean we won’t know the winners for a week. 

“I predict that in a large majority of contests, we will know winners, we will know outcomes sooner rather than later, if not on election night, then shortly thereafter,” said Simon. 

He explained this using a hypothetical election. If Candidate A is beating Candidate B by 1,000 votes, but there are still 700 votes to be counted, even if all 700 of those votes went to Candidate B, Candidate A would still win, because they are up by over 700 votes. So, while we may not know how much a candidate won by, we will most likely be able to determine a winner. 

What are the mask mandates at the in-person polling places?

In indoor public spaces in Minnesota, everyone must wear a mask. Polling places are no different. 

Here are the instructions given to those working at polling places: If a voter walks in without a mask, please offer them one. If despite the offer they don’t take it, ask them to please wear a mask. If they still refuse to wear a mask, offer an alternative solution such as voting in the hallway or do curbside voting in a vehicle. If they are still persistent on not wearing a mask or conducting their vote in an alternative way, you have to give them a ballot. 

“You can’t condition a constitutional right on someone declining to wear a mask,” said Simon. They would still potentially have to pay the $100 fine for not following the mask mandate, but they still are able to vote. 

What if you order your absentee ballot to be sent to one address, but you move to another address before it’s sent?

You should order another absentee ballot to be sent to your updated address. Also, if you move after you have registered to vote in person, you need to register again under your updated address. 

If you are standing in line when the polls close, can you still vote?

If you are in line when the polls close at 8 p.m., you can vote. 

Are polling places gun-free zones?

It depends on where you are. 

“If you are in a facility that is in itself a gun-free zone, like a school, then it’s a gun-free zone. If you’re in a facility that is not, can someone bring in a gun? Yes, they can,” said Simon. 

If you get your mail from a P.O. box, but live at a different address, what proof of address can you provide on your absentee ballot?

“If you go to MNvotes.org, our website, it will give you a walk through of the various things you can show to prove that you live where you say you live,” said Simon. 

How many places do you have to sign on the absentee ballot?

The voter is asked to sign the envelope one time. In a typical year, an absentee ballot would have to also be signed by a witness, but because of a standing court order, that is not required this year. 

Is there a common mistake people make that they should avoid in order for their vote to be counted?

The number one reason ballots are typically rejected in Minnesota is because of the witness signature. However this year, a witness signature is not required, so that should not be a problem. The number two reason is timeliness. 

“I’m quite confident that with the seven-day buffer, that we will have far fewer examples of voters whose ballots have been rejected for that reason,” said Simon. He urges people who are nervous about timeliness to vote as early as they can or hand deliver their ballot to their election office. 

The Electoral College is supposed to vote on Dec. 14. Do you think all the state’s votes will be counted by then?

“I think we will resolve this by then. It would be extraordinary if we didn’t,” said Simon. 

Are you able to make a prediction on turnout for this election?

“For the last two elections in a row, we’ve been number one in America in voter turnout, — both in 2018 and 2016 — so we’re going for the three-peat,” said Simon. 

Use the audio player above to listen to their full conversation.

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