Primary election amid pandemic sets stage for November

A woman holds up and points to a sheet of paper.
Election judge Monica Travis goes over a ballot with a person who showed up to vote at an early voting center in Minneapolis on Monday. The first statewide election amid the pandemic will look different than voters are accustomed to, and election officials are preaching patience.
Evan Frost | MPR News

As Denise Anderson prepared the 31 polling places in Rice County for this year’s elections, her supply list was far more extensive than in the past.

Towels, disinfectant and wipes to keep voting stations, doorknobs and other touch points clean. Goggles, masks, face shields and gowns to outfit election judges. Plexiglass to serve as a layer of protection between voters and poll workers.

Anderson, who is the county’s election director and is also president of the Minnesota Association of County Officers, said the coronavirus pandemic has posed logistical challenges and required close collaboration with public health authorities about how to conduct voting safely.

“I am also trying to figure out, God forbid, if we get COVID in my office what’s going to happen,” Anderson said. “Somebody needs to run the election.”

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Anderson isn’t alone. Election officials across Minnesota are nervously approaching next week’s primary, which is a trial run for the big November election.

A sign that says
A sign tells voters that the voting booth has not been sanitized from a previous voter inside of a Minneapolis early voting center on Monday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

They are worried about having enough election judges and having too many voters in a polling place at once. They’re expecting an avalanche of absentee ballots, which are coming in at a record clip. And they are working to prepare the public for slower tabulation than people have come to expect.

Voters are deciding Tuesday on party nominees for the U.S. Senate, several congressional races, some legislative contests and more.

In Rochester, Minn., City Clerk Anissa Hollingshead said voters will notice the difference from the moment they drive up. Curbside voting will be offered for people who want to cast a ballot from the car.

There will be tents to “clearly identify where voters pull up for curbside voting at each location, that our election judges can be stationed under to have some protections from weather and elements,” she said. “August and November offer some different extreme potentials, and we have to be ready for both.” 

Some polling places have shifted. They’ve been moved away from senior centers or assisted living facilities where there are greater coronavirus risks.

The Legislature set aside millions of dollars — much of it by way of federal grants — to help local election authorities get the state’s 3,000 polling places ready.

It’s been spent on protective equipment, like high-grade masks for poll workers and disposable face coverings for voters who show up without them. Signs will guide voters on proper social distancing. Surfaces will be wiped down frequently. 

The precautions extend down to the pens for marking ballots.

“We’re encouraging voters if they’d like to bring their own pen — as long as it’s a standard ballpoint pen, blue or black ink, they can use that,” Hollingshead said. For those who don’t bring one, “we’ll be sanitizing the pens in the polling place.”

People stand at voting booths.
People vote in voting booths at a Minneapolis early voting center.
Evan Frost | MPR News

A lot of thought has gone into polling place safety that strikes the balance, she said, “between helping people feel reassured and protected and not scared.”

That includes making election judges feel comfortable. They tend to be older and are therefore at greater risk if they contract COVID-19. 

In Wisconsin this spring, a number of election judges who signed up and went through training bailed at the last minute. That led to longer lines and other complications.

Rice County’s Denise Anderson said she could use more recruits, especially for the general election.

“As we’re getting closer to the Election Day, my towns and cities are calling me and saying, ‘Hey, she pulled out because of COVID. I’m going to try to find another one, but do you have any ideas?’” Anderson said.

Some veteran election judges are sitting the year out. About one-third of Rochester’s regular judges are in that camp, 

“But we’re not trying to talk them into something because those are the folks who are most likely to be talked out of it quickly, too,” Hollingshead said. “And the worst case scenario is us getting to right before the election and hearing from a large chunk of judges that ‘You know what, on second thought, this isn’t going to work.’”

Stickers lined up next to a bottle of hand sanitizer.
"I Voted Early" stickers are lined up next to a bottle of hand sanitizer so voters can take their own after voting inside of a Minneapolis early voting center.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Hollingshead has recruited city and county employees to step in as needed.

In Minneapolis, election judges have gone through their 2 1/2-hour online training in place of the normal in-person sessions.

“With good luck and fingers crossed, we will be just fine on staffing for the primary,” said Jeff Narabrook, an elections administrator in Minneapolis.

State Elections Director Dave Maeda said the situation varies by location.

“So we’d have one city that had more than enough people apply and the neighboring city had all their head election judges saying they didn’t want to serve this year,” Maeda said. 

Maeda said judge counts appear to be in good shape for the primary. But November's election — when 30,000 poll workers are needed statewide — is an open question.

That’s one reason state and local officials are heavily promoting absentee ballots.

More than 545,000 absentee ballots for the primary were requested as of last week, and 245,000 had been returned and accepted. That’s considerably more than the 144,000 for the 2018 primary.

Under a consent decree, ballots must be postmarked by Election Day. For the first time, they'll count if they come in up to two days after that. 

Absentee ballot deadlines for the November general election could also be extended. A judge signed off Monday on a seven-day window for counting ballots postmarked by Election Day. But more litigation around that is anticipated.

It could leave the outcome of races up in the air if they’re tight and absentee ballots are still filtering in.

“Election night is going to look a little bit different this time,” said DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon.

“We are used to, in Minnesota, having a certain sense of instant gratification where that night you pretty much know how everything is going to shake out. There are some exceptions of course, but for the most part that is true,” he said. “There’s going to be a little bit of delayed gratification this year.”