Trouble with mail-in ballots could lead to law change

Some voters in a critical state Senate special election have been having trouble getting their mail-in ballots ahead of Tuesday's election.

Senate District 11, which covers rural areas of Pine and Carlton counties, has more than two dozen precincts where the only option is to vote by mail. But the short time frame of the race, less than six weeks, and the unusually cold weather recently has delayed many of those ballots.

It’s been a problem throughout the campaign, including a contested DFL primary, where several hundred ballots arrived late and were not counted.

Republican Rep. Jason Rarick, Democrat Stu Lourey and Legalize Marijuana Now candidate John “Sparky” Birrenbach are in a three-way race to replace former Sen. Tony Lourey, who was appointed to Gov. Tim Walz’s cabinet. Republicans control the Senate by just two votes, making this a race to watch. 

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Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said it was a “perfect storm” of occurrences that caused the delays.

“We had the polar vortex, and postal service was cancelled region-wide, for entire day. We had a primary that was set for the day after a national holiday,” Simon said. “We had an uptick of jurisdictions choosing this vote-by-mail option, and we had a contested primary on the DFL that slowed things down even more.”

By law, if a legislator leaves office in the middle of session, the special election must occur within 35 days of the governor’s issuing a writ of special election. The law is intended to fast-track the race to quickly restore representation to those constituents, but Simon says it’s simply not enough time.

He wants to push to change that law this session to allow for more time.

“Maybe it’s a week longer, maybe it’s two weeks longer, but we’ve got to do that,” he said. “I’m seeing a real bipartisan appetite to get it done this session.”

In the short term, Simon says voters in a vote-by-mail only area who have not received their ballots yet can submit their ballot at the county seat. But if that’s too far away for some voters, they can use overnight mail on Monday to send their ballots by Tuesday. 

Simon said he consulted with the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board and people who chose to ship their ballot by overnight mail can have the expense paid for by a political party if it’s reported as a campaign expense.