Early voting turnout triples in Hennepin Co. since 2014 midterms

Jalisa Moore puts a stack of ballots into the counting machine.
Jalisa Moore, a volunteer for early ballot counting, puts a stack of ballots into the counting machine at Hennepin County 701 Building on Thursday, November 1, 2018.
Jiwon Choi | MPR News

Early voting turnout has tripled this year since the 2014 midterms in Hennepin County, officials said Thursday.

More than 114,000 ballots have been accepted as of Thursday — it was 34,433 four years ago — and more are expected to roll in before Election Day on November 6.

It accounts for more than a quarter of the statewide figure of 410,238 ballots, which have been accepted so far.

Minnesota has also seen a 177 percent increase in absentee ballot turnout from 2014 to 2018. Nationally, more than 27 million people have already cast their ballots, according to data compiled by Michael McDonald, political science professor at the University of Florida.

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The county's elections manager Ginny Gelms said a change in Minnesota law in 2014 has made it easier for more Minnesotans to vote early.

"This election, what we're seeing is a high amount of interest, especially for a midterm election," Gelms said. "So in addition to it being easier to vote prior to Election Day, I do think we're just seeing more and more people interested in voting in this particular election."

The county started counting ballots Tuesday. Minnesota law allows local election offices to open and count absentee ballots as early as a week before Election Day.

Once a ballot is accepted, it is securely stored by the office until it is counted. Volunteers are paired for security as they hand count each ballot.

If any error is detected on the ballot, it won't be counted. Instead, a new ballot is sent to the voter, who can resubmit it via U.S. mail or take it to their local board of election.

A voter can also wait to cast their ballot their local polling place on Election Day. If the new ballot is received after the day, it won't be counted. In fact, if any ballot is received after Nov. 6 it will not be counted regardless of postmark.

All ballots are kept anonymous. Results are not made public until polls close on election night. Once counted, early-voting ballots cannot be modified or canceled.

"If you were to come in and say I want to take my ballot back I now don't know which ballot among the thousands of ballots to be processed is yours," said Gelms. "So if you change your mind at this point you've already submitted a ballot. It is too late."

Due to the higher number of early voters this year, the county has hired more volunteers to help process the ballots. Hundreds of the University of Minnesota students and employees from the county departments participate in the counting sessions.

Max Gort, a volunteer and 18-year-old UM freshman, said that he also cast his first ballot through the mail.

"It was interesting to see the other side is something that I already took part in," said Gort.

"It was nice to see the human component because you think about where your vote is going and seeing how it's actually counted," he said. "It reminds you that it's a true democratic process."

The county's election official said she is skeptical about whether this higher early voter turnout would result in an increase in the total turnout.

"A lot of people who vote prior to election day are people who probably would have shown up and voted on Election Day anyway," said Gelms.

"But again, I think this election might be an exception that proves the rule. I think we probably will see a lot more people turning out for this particular midterm than we have for midterms in the past."