Big Books & Bold Ideas with Kerri Miller

A procrastinator’s guide to the 2020 election

Three people in masks hold up "I Voted" stickers.
(Left to right) University of Minnesota Duluth students Elisabeth Banjo, Maura Merriam and Claudia Bleess hold up "I Voted" stickers after voting Oct. 21 in Duluth, Minn.
Courtesy of Elisabeth Banjo file

Updated: 5 p.m.

Election Day is a week away, and some 1.2 million Minnesotans have already voted either by mail or at early in-person polling sites.

But for people who need more time to research where candidates stand on important issues, don’t fret — there’s still plenty of time for you to exercise your right to vote.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News file

Tuesday at 9 a.m., Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon joined MPR News host Kerri Miller to answer last-minute questions on voting this year. 


  • Steve Simon is the Secretary of State for Minnesota.  

Use the audio player above to listen to the program or read the edited transcript below.

Do you have any sense that these are early voters who would have voted on election day anyway, or whether we are expanding the electorate?

Simon: There is some evidence — at least indirect evidence — that we are expanding the electorate. Whether that has to do with the methods and modes of voting or just that people are feeling very intensely about this particular election, and in particular, the presidential election. We're not sure.

So take the numbers for youth, for example. They appear to be really off the charts in Minnesota and many other states. I have to brag, we are the reigning national champs not only in voting in general, but in 2018, Minnesota was also No. 1 in that particular category of voters ages 18 to 29.

That's a moving target. The 18- to 29-year-olds two years ago are by definition not the same, at least at the margins this year. So ages change. But the numbers do look promising, in that slice of the electorate in particular.

There is a challenge to the state’s plan to count ballots for up to a week after Election Day. Where do things stand right now and how will you respond depending on which way this goes?

I got to be a little bit careful, because it's a matter in litigation, but I can talk about matters that are public record. So there there there are big differences between what the Supreme Court did Monday night in Wisconsin and our case.

The status quo in Wisconsin was ballots had to be in by Election Day, that wasn't changed by Monday ruling. The status quo here in Minnesota with seven days to go is that we're going to have a week after the election to count, that was a state court ruling back in early August, a consent decree.

The folks who are intervening here to turn this over, they could have and did not intervene in that state court proceeding. It gets into some complicated legal mechanics, but suffice it to say there are a lot of ways to distinguish what happened Monday [in Wisconsin] from this case.

I'm hopeful that the court will see what the confusing downstream effects would be of upsetting this apple cart seven days before the election, but we'll see. The oral argument is Tuesday.

There's a principle in the federal courts that says that the closer you get to an election, the more cautious courts should be about imposing last-minute rule changes. I just might say here, if in this case that doesn't apply, you might as well junk the doctrine altogether, right? I mean, it can't get much closer than this. And it can't be a more significant deadline — whether a ballot will or won't be counted.

Listener question: While I was marking my absentee ballot, my pen bled through, leaving marks on the other side. I'm worried my vote will be tossed by the scanner, due to my bold pen choice. — Kelly via Twitter

This is the “Sharpie” question. The Sharpie people who use a sharpie, please don't do that, folks. But it may or may not bleed over to the other side and impact actual dots on the other side or ovals.

If there is a question or if somehow the ballot inadvertently results in an over vote — where you vote for two candidates in a particular race — state law says that elections administrators must immediately, as soon as possible, notify the voter and give them a chance at a do-over the so-called “right to cure.” And that happens very frequently in Minnesota.

So I would say to Kelly that, yes, it's a problem. You'll be notified. And if you're not notified, you should assume there was no problem.

Listener question: Why are certain polling places in my county going to be closed on Election Day? I checked the website and it said that automatic absentee ballots will be sent to registered voters. — Stephanie from Stearns County

There are two issues going on there potentially: One has to do with polling places that have changed. It's not necessarily that they've decreased but they've changed because of COVID-19. We urge the Legislature and they did provide extra time to change polling places. Why? Because there were dozens of polling places throughout Minnesota that were in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, where there was just more risk. And so there were some that were changed across Minnesota — not decrease but change.

Then there's the other issue that I think Stephanie is getting at. It sounds like she probably lives in a small city or township, which is entitled under Minnesota law to do away with polling places altogether. We've had that law on the books for 33 years, that is nothing new or radical or even 2020-related. It means small cities with under 400 registered voters and rural townships can, at their option, say “We're not doing a polling place, and everyone in our jurisdiction who is registered to vote will automatically get a ballot sent to them.”

It sounds like that's what happened here. And they can either mail it in, or they can go to a designated county office and hand-deliver it.

You have said that even though the full election results may not be known for a week after Election Day, you are pretty confident that we in the news media will be able to report the winner of Minnesota in many races. Are you including the presidential race in that?

I think that in the large majority of cases, we'll know outcomes — meaning winners — earlier rather than later, if not on election night then shortly thereafter.

The reason for that is for the first time, we're doing something in our office that is not required of us under state law, but we thought it was in the public interest, which we will be able to drill down to the state House district level to provide one key piece of information: the number of outstanding absentee ballots.

So on election night, we'll know the totals that include everyone who voted that day, everyone or substantially everyone who had sent in an absentee ballot that arrived up to that point. And that key number that I just mentioned — outstanding absentee ballots.

So let's take a hypothetical of a house state house contest in district ‘X’, and someone's following that race. And on election night, candidate ‘A’ is ahead of candidate ‘B’ by 500 votes. But let's say that our office can also tell you either that night or shortly thereafter, that the number of outstanding absentee ballots is 300. Mathematically, you know that candidate A has won. We won't know for a week by how much the candidate has won.

That's an easy hypothetical, admittedly, but I think more will be like that. That will be contests where we're waiting for the last day and the last hour and the last vote. I'm sure there always are.

Listener question: On the mail-in ballot, it says for your identification, like your driver's license or your Social Security number, it has to be the same one you used on your absentee ballot application. I don't remember which one I used on my ballot application. — Curtis from Mahtomedi 

It's hard to remember if you ordered your ballot using one form of ID, you might not remember weeks or even months later. First, I would urge folks who are in that situation and haven't yet sent your ballot back — send it back immediately. But second, use both. If you're not sure which you used, was it last for social or driver's license? Just put both. That's what I did. I didn't even remember. So I put both, and it was accepted.

But if you only put one and it's not the one, have no fear, because there are backups. No. 1, what elections administrators do is to look up whatever piece of identifying information you did provide, and to see if there's a match, even if it's not the one you used in particular. Secondly, that's why we have a signature requirement, too, as a backup, so they can match signatures as well. It's very rarely a problem.

And as I mentioned earlier, if for some reason your ballot is rejected, you must be contacted immediately and given the right to cure, as they say, which is basically a do-over.

Listener question: What kind of contingency plan discussions have been going on about if armed people just show up at polling places? — Jim from Winona

The law enforcement community is definitely on it. There was a report a couple weeks ago that a Tennessee employment agency had posted a job asking for members of the military to come to Minnesota to help guard polling places. So Attorney General Keith Ellison and I were immediately on the phone, we reached out to state and federal law enforcement, Ellison's office just got an agreement by this employment agency less than a week that that's not going to happen.

But that takes care of that particular episode, the caller rightly talks about this just by category, what if it happens from some other source? The rule is in Minnesota that no one who's not supposed to be there can be within 100 feet of the entrance of a polling place.

But the question arises, what about 101 feet? What if ex-military or anyone purporting to help law enforcement guard polling places shows up with with weapons, 101 feet from the polling place? I talked with Commissioner John Harrington at the Department of Public Safety, with federal law enforcement partners as well, and we have very strong and particular federal and state laws against voter intimidation.

So law enforcement is, I would say, on alert, voting rights groups are on alert about what happens if people show up trying to augment or supplement security 101 feet from the polling place. I feel very good about the laws and the tools available to make sure that doesn't happen.

Listener question: My first name in my voter information was wrong for the last election and it appears to be wrong still. How can I fix that? — Ana from Burnsville

My advice would be to call your county election office. That is a process that goes through them. Call them, they are expecting exactly these kind of calls, we get them all the time, even if it includes a hyphen or an apostrophe or an accent mark. That can be remedied.

What if someone didn’t request an absentee ballot but now has COVID-19 and needs to quarantine for two week? What can they do to still vote?

There are procedures in Minnesota law about exactly that. Same thing, if someone is hospitalized without notice. There are certain agent delivery rules, where if you're in a health care facility or you have a health condition suddenly at the last minute, if you go to our website,, and it will tell you what to do. You can have someone serve as your delivery agent for a ballot — a person that the that the individual voter designates as their delivery agent for that ballot.

How long does it take for a voter to be able to check their ballot status on the Secretary of State’s website?

That, too, is county-based. Keep refreshing. Keep checking on that website. On the website, you go to ballot tracker, and it'll tell you if and when your ballot came in

I can't explain a particular of a particular county, maybe it's a mail issue. Let’s say, you see that your ballot has still not arrived, you're getting nervous, you still have options to go vote in person absentee up to the Monday before the election or go in on game day itself on Election Day. But there are options in a pinch.

Listener question: If you don’t have an address, what do you to vote? — Mike from St. Paul

Minnesota was a real pioneer in that regard. In the early 1990s, Minnesota took the lead — one of the very few states — in passing laws that allowed people experiencing homelessness to vote.

So even if you are in an encampment, even if you are under a bridge, you can still vote in Minnesota, there are specific ways and if you go, again, to, it tells you how.

Part of it involves a tool in Minnesota called “vouching” — meaning someone who lives in your precinct, I can vouch that you are staying at the place where you're staying, it could be a shelter, it could be an encampment, it could be some other situation. And that person under penalty of perjury says that you live where you say you live. And as long as you meet those simple definitions, you can vote.

Are you seeing any indication that these ballots are slow and/or the post office is feeling a little overwhelmed? And what should we know about that?

Let me make a distinction between the higher-ups in Washington who have made decisions that at some point, certainly in the summer, had the effect of slowing down the mail — whether intentional or not, I’ll leave that to others. But they did have that effect. I make the distinction between them and the folks that we, in our office, regularly deal with. The Minnesota postal leadership across the state has been outstanding — just outstanding. I mean, they’ve really gone the extra mile, have really put their heart into it and really put the resources into it.

I'm not saying there won't be hiccups and some delays. There always are. But overall, I have been very impressed at the responsiveness of the Minnesota folks. I can't say the same about the folks at the federal level.

With only a week left until Election Day, is it too late to return absentee ballots by mail?

Remember, we have this new rule. The law right now is — you have until Nov. 3 to drop it in the mail, as long as it gets there one week later by Nov. 10.

But my advice to everyone, not just because of this lawsuit, but generally speaking is — get it in the mail right away. Just because you get the ballot mailed to you doesn't mean you have to return it by mail. You have always had the option to actually hand-deliver it or have someone you know and trust hand-deliver it for you. So don't forget about that option, too.

Have questions leading up to the Election Day? #AskMPRNews. We want to hear your stories, too. #TellMPRNews what is motivating you to get out and vote this year.

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