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High voter turnout and a mostly smooth day at the polls

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U of M students vote
Jack Carlson, 20, of Edina, Minnesota, and Arman Shahriar, 20, of Edina, Minnesota, cast their ballots at Coffman Memorial Union on the University of Minnesota on November 6, 2012.
Caroline Yang for MPR

Latest update 1:53 a.m.

The leadup to yesterday's election in Minnesota was atypical in its over-the-top rhetoric and record campaign spending. Yet for the most part the polls ran smoothly. Voter turnout was high. A Democrat won Minnesota's electoral votes. And voters used words like orderly, pleasant, serious, and even solemn to describe the experience.

In other words, business as usual.

There were notable exceptions. About 5,500 ballots cast in three Minneapolis precincts won't be counted until this morning due to technical printing errors that caused the ballots to be unscannable. And a number of polling locations had trouble with judges ignoring state guidelines and counseling voters that a non vote on two constitutional amendments constituted a "no" vote.

Jenkins voting
A light wet snow covers the roof and ground around the Jenkins Town Hall as early voters casts their ballots Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 in Jenkins, Minn. Jenkins is located in Crow Wing County in northern Minnesota.
AP Photo/Tom Olmscheid

But overall, said Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, the day went as expected. An estimated 3 million people voted in Minnesota, and Ritchie expected turnout would be around 75 to 78 percent, on par with 2008. 

"There was a big turnout in the morning and it looks like there was a big turnout at the end of the day," Ritchie said. "With the good will of people and the assistance of others, I think people had a really good experience."

Count Gilda Gieske among them.  "[We had] lots of people, very friendly," said Gilda Gieske, an election judge in Todd County and member of MPR's Public Insight Network. "We don't talk politics, just catch up on what the kids are doing now, how the elderly neighbors and relatives are doing. Everybody is happy the campaign is over. We all want to get on with moving the country forward."

Minneapolis City Clerk Casey Carl said the problem ballots were used in two precincts in the Lowry Hill East neighborhood and in the Whittier neighborhood, all in south Minneapolis.  The ballots were transported to the city's elections warehouse in North Minneapolis where they will be hand counted starting at 10 a.m., he added.

The first reports of ballot problems were reported to city officials shortly after 9 a.m. Tuesday, Carl said.

Anoka County Elections Manager Rachel Smith
While election officials expect a smooth day at the polls, they urge voters to double-check their voting locations. "Redistricting caused all the lines to be drawn, which included precinct lines — which ultimately resulted in polling places probably changed for a lot of folks," said Rachel Smith, who manages elections for Hennepin County.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

"We did experience similar problems at a handful of precinct across the city, a total of 14 and we were able to resolve the issue in all of them but three," he said.

Another concern to emerge had to do with election judges counseling voters about constitutional amendments despite instructions from state officials not to.

MPRNews fielded calls and emails throughout the day about judges explaining that not voting on the two amendments — one defining marriage as between a man and woman and the other requiring voters to show ID at the polls — was the same as a no vote. Their concerns were echoed by Minnesotans calling a national voter hotline.

Mike Pignato, a Dorsey & Whitney attorney working with the Election Protection project, said his firm received about two dozen calls from voters who witnessed judges advising voters about the amendments, making it the most frequent complaint after more mundane questions about parking and polling logistics.

Pignato said judges were mostly repeating the language included on the ballot, but even that created inconsistencies and could have given voters the impression that the amendments were more important than other ballot questions. "Some voters calling have been very upset about it and felt the judge was expressing a bias by giving the instruction," said Pignato.

That's exactly the situation state election officials had hoped to avoid when they issued instructions to election judges not to verbally explain or otherwise point out that a non-vote equals a "no" vote. If voters asked about the proposed amendments, election judges were told to point to this language on the ballot without further explanation to avoid influencing how the voter voted.

At polling places in Washington County, voters were shown a sign that said leaving amendment questions blank would be counted as ''no'' votes. The signs were later removed by Washington County officials after conferring with state election officials.

The fact that some judges were offering extra instruction soured the voting experience for several people in our Public Insight Network. Sarah Webbe of West St. Paul said she felt "pressured."

"I was shocked, said Amy Chaffins, who voted in Alexandria, adding the judge became defensive when she suggested that the instructions were inappropriate. "It made me wonder, are they taking it upon themselves personally to influence this vote?" 

Blank votes benefitted opponents of both amendments and in close contests, could make the difference. Amendment boosters spent weeks reminding supporters that a blank vote is a no vote, in the hope of discouraging voters from skipping the question on the ballot. 

There were scattered reports from voters who saw signs or messages related to the marriage amendment at churches that were serving as polling places. That included Saint John Vianney in South St. Paul, where a banner that read "Strengthen Marriage, don't redefine it" could be seen by voters entering the church. Once the sign was brought to the church's attention, it was removed.

At some locations, long lines were a common sight, even in the afternoon when there's usually a lull in voting activity. In some cases, the delays were compounded by malfunctioning ballot machines.

In Minneapolis, election judges at a polling place in Prospect Park were surprised to see a line snaking down the staircase. At the VFW on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis, at least 200 people stood outside around 8 a.m.

David Greene and his wife Emily took it all in stride.

"We kind of knew what to do — bundle up, get your coffee and have a good time," he said. "It's wonderful, good to see so many people out."

The situation was a bit more intense at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Canby, where a threat written on a bathroom wall at prompted an evacuation order and disrupted voting for about 90 minutes until police determined the area was safe. 

MORE CAMPAIGN 2012 COVERAGE


• Live blog: Election Day 2012
• Select a Candidate: See where they stand
• The races: Coverage of presidential, congressional and Senate races
• Marriage Amendment: Stories, discussions, commentaries
• Voter ID Amendment: Stories, discussions, commentaries
• PoliGraph: Campaign fact-checks

Several election judges who spoke with MPRNews reported an unusually high number of voters looking to register at the polls. They attributed the increase to confusion caused by redistricting and successful get out the vote efforts.

Some University of Minnesota students were turned away because they didn't have what they needed to register to vote. State law currently does not require voters to show photo ID with their current address in order to register to vote. But they need to either have an ID plus a utility or other bill with their name and current address, or have a neighbor who is a registered voter vouch for them.

"A lot of people don't understand what it is they need to have, and even once we explain it they don't have what they need to have," said election judge Jane Strauss, who was working the poll at Coffman Memorial Union on the U of M campus.

Sarah Mering, a University of Minnesota freshman, was disappointed she wasn't able to vote. She has an out-of-state ID but no utility bill and doesn't know anyone in her neigborhood because she just moved to a new apartment. 

"I think it kind of sucks because I just turned 18. When you come to college and if you're out of state, they don't tell you what you need," she said.

Despite the various wrinkles, some voters said they were pleasantly surprised how easy it was to vote. 

Kryssa Anderson, a 21-year-old University of Minnesota student, voted at a church in Dinkytown without much of a wait.  "They know people have class, so they're trying to make it fast," Anderson said.

Deborah Farrell, a therapist in Walker, said her polling place was a model of "quiet cooperation." She described what it felt like to see her mother and daughter working as election judges. "There seems to be a seriousness of intention and a kid of respect that meant a lot."

"I hold great hope for the next generation of voters" she said. 

(MPR reporters Elizabeth Dunbar, Laura Yuen, Catharine Richert, and MPR News intern Alli Sobiech contributed to this report.)