Early voting in Minnesota surges

An early voting pamphlet sits on a table.
An early voting pamphlet, which details when and where to vote in Minnesota's primary elections, sits on a table inside the Ramsey County Elections Plato Building in St. Paul on Monday.
Lacey Young | MPR News

Minnesota rolled out early no-excuse absentee voting four years ago. This year, early absentee voting stations opened throughout Minnesota on June 29. Since then nearly 120,000 Minnesotans have cast early primary ballots.

As in most other places around the state, absentee voting is way up in Hennepin County.

Ross Stadheim, 33, of Minneapolis voted last week.

"I just wanted to early vote to get it done. I'm usually not a primary voter and this is the first time I've voted in a primary," he said.

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Gloria Gaines, 57, also of Minneapolis, voted almost a month ago.

"I've been voting since I was 18 — a long time ago. And it works out better for me to do it early to beat the crowd, to beat the rush. Do it early so no stresses," Gaines said.

Prior to 2014, Minnesotans were required to give election officials a qualifying reason to vote with an absentee ballot, such as they planned to be out of town on Election Day.

Now, anyone can vote in-person with an absentee ballot starting 46 days before the election. And each election cycle since 2014 more and more Minnesotans have embraced the option.

"People are fired up to vote. There's no question about it," said DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon at a recent get-out-the-vote rally in St. Paul.

Simon said he hopes Minnesotans' surging interest in no-excuse early absentee voting will lead to more changes that would make voting easier. Simon said he supports allowing people to vote with standard ballots starting several days before Election Day. That would spare voters and elections officials the process of applying for absentee ballots

"I think going to true early voting, which many states have — red states, blues states, all states in between — would be real important reform," Simon said.

But Dan McGrath of the Minnesota Voters Alliance opposes such a move.

"We can't sacrifice the security of our voting system for the sake of convenience," he said.

The Minnesota Voters Alliance was behind the rejected constitutional amendment to require voters to show identification to get their ballot. McGrath said real early voting would take place at the expense of important checks on the voting process.

"You would have weeks of actual election days happening, but without the opportunity for the political parties to provide oversight over that balloting going on, without citizen participation in the election judging process," he said.

Simon said he would support about a week of early voting, not multiple weeks, and he insists true early voting can be done securely.

But a clear drawback of true early voting is that once a ballot is cast, voters are out of luck if they have a change of heart about who they want to cast a ballot for. On the other hand, Minnesota's current no-excuse absentee voting rules give voters a second chance. People can cancel their ballot and get a new one up to seven days before Election Day.

That restriction could be frustrating some Minnesota voters right now as two major candidates face late, breaking allegations of bad behavior that surfaced after the cutoff date.