Did we break a record? Minnesota election officials say it's close, but not yet

People wait in line outside a church.
Voters wait in a short line outside at the Church of the Holy Spirit Tuesday in St. Cloud, Minn.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Updated: 3:55 p.m.

Minnesota likely won’t set a new state record for voter turnout, but it will be close, elections officials said.

The previous record of 83 percent of eligible voters occurred in 1956.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon in a post-election update Wednesday said 2020 saw at least a 78.1 percent turnout, based on 3,216,814 votes out of 4,118,462 people believed to be eligible to vote.

“Keep in mind that number will grow, we don’t know by how much, but there’s more to come,” Simon said. He thought Minnesota may vie with Colorado for top turnout in the nation.

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He said there are still about 240,000 outstanding absentee ballots and that elections officials will keep counting ballots and votes that arrive for as much as a week.

Simon noted that the extended count is the subject of a legal dispute. A recent 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling requires Minnesota elections officials to set aside mailed ballots that arrive after Election Day, which the secretary of state has said they will do. But Simon’s office plans to add the late votes to the state totals, at least for now. The appeals court ruling cast doubt on a consent decree signed by Simon this summer allowing seven days to receive ballots postmarked by the close of Election Day.

“The court said nothing about how we were to count those ballots, only that we were to segregate them,” Simon said, later adding “a new vote is a new vote is a new vote.” He said there hasn’t been any new legal action to invalidate the late arriving ballots, and that he’s not sure there will be, as the state’s presidential margin is likely wide enough to be unaffected by the additional tally.

Simon didn’t rule out someone else, including any other candidate, from taking up the cause.

He also pointed out there appeared to be dozens of races that could be subject to publicly-funded recounts, including state House districts 6A, the incumbent is Julie Sandstede DFL-Hibbing; 19A, with Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, challenged in that contest; and 38B, where Ami Wazlawik, DFL-White Bear Township, is the incumbent.

Minneapolis reported that it has set a new voter turnout record, with 80.6 percent of registered voters within the city participating.

In Hennepin County, more than 746,000 voters in the county cast ballots in Tuesday’s election — likely an all-time high.

County Elections Manager Ginny Gelms said Wednesday morning that the preliminary voter turnout for the county was at 88 percent.

"We blew the doors off of previous turnout in Hennepin County,” she said.

This year’s turnout topped the 82 percent of registered voters who cast their ballots in 2016 and the 84 percent in 2012. Gelms said this year marked a watershed moment for elections administration, given the sheer volume of people who voted by absentee during the pandemic.

In the presidential election of 2016, 30 percent of voters in the county cast their ballots by absentee, while 70 percent voted in person on Election Day. On Tuesday, that ratio was essentially flipped, said Gelms, who added that the latest figures could signal a lasting preference for absentee voting.

“Going forward, one job that we have is to plan how this will probably permanently change how Minnesotans vote,” Gelms said.

Elections judges across the state were allowed to begin processing early early ballots two weeks ahead of election night, which helped ensure relatively timely results, she added.