Election 2020

Minnesota ballot count is on, but for how long?

People wearing masks sits at tables and sort papers.
Election Judges take absentee ballots out of their signature envelopes and look them over before sending them to be scanned at the Ramsey County Absentee Ballot Count Center in St. Paul on Oct. 21.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Tuesday marks a week until all votes must be cast in the 2020 election, but that doesn’t mean the outcome of every Minnesota race will be known right away or even the following days.

New dynamics around voting and vote counting in this pandemic-era election have introduced more uncertainty than normal.

Because of a court decree, properly cast ballots that are in the mail by Election Day will count if they’re received by Nov. 10. That grace period is being contested, with the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals expected to weigh in this week.

As of Friday morning, about 1.2 million absentee ballots had been cast and accepted. The number is surely higher than that now and growing. To put it in context, that’s almost double the early or absentee vote than all of 2016.

In Ramsey County last week, election judges began what amounts to a COVID-19-cautious ballot count.

People and equipment were spread out in adjoining rooms of a government building. Pairs of election judges sat at different stations, each on the opposite side of a piece of plexiglass. They wore latex gloves and masks. Some had clear face shields or safety goggles, too.

They were separating ballots from their envelopes, initialing them, putting them into stacks and eventually scanning the ballots for the count.

It’s a time-intensive process. Deputy Elections Manager Heather Bestler said if the counties didn’t have two weeks to do it — an extra week than normal this year — it would have been a big problem, given the volume of people voting by mail. In her county, 130,000 votes have been cast already.

“It would not have been possible to process,” Bestler said. “We don’t know what the ultimate count will be for the number of absentee ballots but there wouldn’t have been enough time or space to process that many ballots in the usually allotted time.” 

The tallies themselves won’t happen until polls close on Election Day. That’s the law.

The early votes will be merged with a big batch of in-person votes from more than 4,000 precincts. All will be considered unofficial results and they won’t be the full picture.

In neighboring Wisconsin, none of those ballots can be processed until Election Day.

A fluorescent lit room with racks and tables.
Received absentee ballots sit in mail bins before being verified at the Ramsey County Absentee Ballot Count Center. The ballots are verified and scanned into software that will automatically begin counting the vote at 8 p.m. on election night.
Evan Frost | MPR News

With the extra seven-day buffer here, if there are close races — for the Minnesota Legislature, for Congress or even for president — it might take some time to determine who came out on top.

Still, Hennepin County Elections Manager Ginny Gelms said the avalanche of absentee voting — 350,000 and counting in her county — is a big help in a high-turnout year.

“We still expect a robust Election Day but the pressure will be taken off a little bit based on the number of people who have been voting absentee either through the mail or in-person absentee,” she said.

After every election, there are shifts in the totals as data is double and triple checked. They’re usually small adjustments.

That phase is known as the canvass. Every county goes over their results to match up the number of people who voted and the number of votes cast for each candidate.

Mail bins sit on a rack.
Received absentee ballots sit in mail bins before being scanned for counting on election night at the Ramsey County Absentee Ballot Count Center.
Evan Frost | MPR News

That will occur on Nov. 13 in some of Minnesota’s biggest counties. The results get passed up to the state. 

A five-member state canvassing board meets on Nov. 24 to certify the results and order any recounts if races fall within a fraction of a percent. The threshold differs by office. The trailing candidate can waive the recount.

It’s possible there will be court challenges in races where the outcome is close. This year a lot of the legal skirmishes over rules and procedures were prior to the election so the results could be less susceptible to challenge.

But with the stakes — control of the Legislature or the margin of majorities in Congress — results of high-profile or pivotal races could come under scrutiny.

Have questions leading up to the Election Day? #AskMPRNews. We want to hear your stories, too. #TellMPRNews what is motivating you to get out and vote this year.

Volume Button
Now Listening To Livestream
MPR News logo
On Air
MPR News