Minn. voter turnout falls short of the record

First in line
Ruby Payne shows off her "I Voted" stickers after being the first person to cast her ballot at the Martin Luther King Center in St. Paul. She lined up at 6 a.m. to be No. 1 in the queue.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

Minnesotans heeded a call to keep the state a national leader in voter turnout. And Mary Smith couldn't be prouder.

"It's been wonderful; it's been marvelous. We had a line outside that came around, came inside, snaked all the way around to the back hallway, looped back, came back this way and came into the door," said Smith.

Minneapolis voters
Voters passed the time in a variety of ways while waiting in line at a VFW Club on Lyndale Avenue near Lake Street in Minneapolis. The line in the morning at that polling station stretched for two-and-a-half blocks with waits up to two hours.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

Smith has been an election judge in North Minneapolis for more than three decades. She remembers when only 37 people showed up to a primary election in her precinct.

Compare that with Tuesday night. With still an hour left before closing time, more than 1,600 people had marked their ballots at the Minneapolis Urban League polling place. Many were young, black and first-time voters. The turnout shattered a record for Smith's precinct.

"I'm so proud of Minnesota. I keep telling people, what happened in Florida could not happen here. Our system is so good. We've got paper trails, we got backups. So what happens other places cannot happen here. The state of Minnesota cares about their voters, and you can quote me on that," said Smith.

But there were a few glitches throughout the night. Minnesota Public Radio heard from several dozen voters across the state. While many were generally upbeat about the elections, others reported problems ranging from confused poll workers to inaccurate voter lists.

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In a predominantly Somali precinct in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, two dueling groups accused each other of campaigning in the building and using translators to influence immigrant voters' decisions.

Hancock, Minn.
Mike Paul, left, and his son Dennis Paul, both of the Hancock, Minnesota area, pick up ballots from the local election judges before casting their ballots on November 4, 2008 in the rural township of Hancock, Minnesota.
Cory Ryan/Getty Images

In Bloomington, voters reported that poll workers were mistakenly asking registered voters for photo ID.

In St. Paul a car crashed into a utility pole and caused a power outage that affected two polling precincts.

Some of the most serious reports came from people who say they had pre-registered to vote, but their names were not on the voter lists. One man from Bloomington told MPR News that he had even voted as recently as 2006.

Mike Dean heads Common Cause Minnesota, one of the partners involved with the nonpartisan Election Protection Coalition. He says the coalition's hotline has received similar calls from voters who were told they weren't registered.

San Francisco, Minn.
People arrive at the town hall just after sunrise to cast their ballot in the U.S. presidential election on November 4, 2008 in the rural township of San Francisco, Minnesota.
Cory Ryan/Getty Images

"This is a huge concern for us, why individuals were removed from the voter rolls over the last two years, apparently for no good reason," said Dean.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie says while Tuesday wasn't perfect, it was a success.

Ritchie notes that Minnesota allows voters to register on Election Day, which provides a safety net for those voters whom otherwise could have been turned away.

Ritchie says most of the election-related complaints are handled by the counties or cities. Elections officials at those levels are responsible for training and hiring the election judges, setting up the booths, and maintaining their areas' voter-registration lists.

Waiting to vote
A long line of people waited to vote at Dowling Urban Environmental Elementary School in Minneapolis this morning. By midday, most polling stations reporting much shorter wait times.
MPR Photo/Kate Smith

But he says his office has already turned over one major allegation to state and federal authorities.

"We had one serious complaint of the passing around a text message that said, 'Due to the long lines, Obama supporters will vote on Wednesday.' This is a classic deceptive practice that is used all over the country, all over the time. But this case it was used by text messaging," said Ritchie.

He says long lines formed at polling precincts where young people live, including the University of Minnesota campus.

But many polling places that were packed in the morning looked deserted by the 8 p.m. closing time.

Ritchie says ironically, strong turnout early in the day is what may have kept some people at home.

Young boy
A young boy waits while his parents fill out their ballots this morning at Central Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Kate Smith

"They heard about long lines. They thought, 'Well, the state's already settled.' If I'm supporting John McCain, why bother, if I'm supporting Obama, why bother," said Ritchie.

But he says the showing was still positive, with tens of thousands of young voters lining up to cast their first ballots ever. People were courteous in line, some overjoyed to be part of a historic race.

And he says that's something Minnesotans should feel good about.