Candidates press, counties prep as election hits final stretch

A person loads a sample ballot into a counting machine
George Bonnell loads a sample ballot into a counting machine during a demonstration on Wednesday in Brooklyn Park, Minn.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Election Day is finally in sight as candidates make their final dashes and election managers undergo final preparations.

Political parties and candidates are in mobilization mode. The name of the game is activating the likeliest supporters and making sure they actually vote. It’s playing out through airport hangar rallies, college campus stops, phone banks and on voters’ doorsteps.

In the governor’s race, Republican nominee Scott Jensen and his running mate Matt Birk have been trying to reach all corners of Minnesota with fly-arounds and rallies. They’re getting crowds in the hundreds but also hoping for local news coverage that can pay dividends, too.

A man speaks into a microphone as he stands at a podium
Republican candidate for governor Scott Jensen spoke to a rally in Golden Valley, Minn. on Monday.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

"This election coming around — as much as anything — this is about hearts and minds,” Jensen told a rally earlier this week where he appeared with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. “This election is about we've got to dig deep. We need to recognize that we are not going to win because we have the machine Tim Walz has. We don't have the money Tim Walz has.” 

Jensen added, “What we have is a movement.”

Walz has also spent the week on the road. He made stops in northwestern Minnesota, held voter turnout events in Duluth and plans to be on a DFL Party bus swing into the weekend.

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“These elections are going to be close. But the choice is very clear,” Walz told students on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. “It's not policy choices. It's democracy versus not. It's women's autonomy versus not. It’s funding education versus not. It's addressing climate change versus not. So the ballot is pretty simple on this. I hope we've earned your vote.”

A man in a checked jacket talking to a group of people
Gov. Tim Walz talked to students at the University of Minnesota Duluth on Wednesday.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Several big races are viewed as very close. 

Democrats have dominated statewide elections since Republicans last won one in 2006 when Tim Pawlenty snagged a second term as governor. 

But the DFL candidates know they’re running into stiff headwinds this year with crime, inflation and just general economic anxiety among voters.

In the governor’s race, there are six candidates on the ballot, and in the state auditor’s race there are four. That makes things more volatile and it’s possible the winner could be under 50 percent.

The secretary of state’s race is between incumbent DFLer Steve Simon and Republican Kim Crockett. The attorney general’s race has DFLer Keith Ellison facing off with Republican challenger Jim Schultz. 

The head to heads pose a test for Republicans, who haven’t exceeded 50 percent in a statewide race since Arne Carlson won reelection as governor in 1994. Norm Coleman was right on the cusp when he won a U.S. Senate seat in 2002.

Fewer people are expected to vote absentee than in the 2020 election, when COVID-19 concerns loomed large. But there are still a lot of people using early voting options. As of Tuesday, there were 376,000 accepted ballots and that’s ticking up each day.

On Monday, Crockett urged people to walk their ballots into an election office or vote in person rather than risk a rejected or tardy ballot.

“Take your ballot and treat it like the gold that it is because you only have one vote,” she said. 

Secretary of state candidate Crockett
Kim Crockett speaks during the first day of the Minnesota State Republican Convention, May 13, at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, Minn.
Star Tribune via Associated Press: Glen Stubbe, AP File

Simon agreed that it’s getting a bit late to mail ballots, but he said people can trust established drop boxes set up to receive ballots in some areas.

There has been some confusion this year as pre-pandemic absentee rules are back in force. Some ballots have lacked proper witness signatures, a requirement that was suspended in 2020. 

“Yes, the system's working,” Crockett said of the rejections. “But it doesn't mean that the voters will have time to get things turned around and get their ballots in.”

Simon said Wednesday that authorities go out of their way to let those voters know of a deficiency.

“It's ultimately the voter who has to do it right,” Simon said. “But under a state statute, there are very strict requirements that elections administrators at all levels must make maximum efforts to contact the voter, by any means. I even know of people who go to homes, physically, if they can't reach a voter by email or by phone or by other means. So they must act in any way they can to make sure that the voter has that right to cure the ballot.”

Two men stand in a room
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon talks with Brooklyn Park city clerk Devin Montero during a voting machine demonstration in Brooklyn Park, Minn. on Wednesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

There are other efforts in progress to build voter confidence that the election will be fairly conducted.

Election managers are doing a lot more to build public awareness of how they do their jobs, what safeguards are in place and how secure the technology is.

Before every election, voting equipment undergoes testing but that usually doesn’t get a lot of attention. 

At a public accuracy test Wednesday in Brooklyn Park, election workers checked tabulation tools and other ballot marking procedures to make sure the machines did what they were supposed to. 

City Clerk Devin Montero says dozens of pieces of equipment are being put through their paces as Election Day approaches.

“If the machine is going to pick up in an overvote or a blank ballot or even a timing mark situation. The machine will pick it up. Once we submit all the ballots, then we tabulate the votes, and then we compare the tapes according to the spreadsheet to come up with an errorless count.”

A person loads a sample ballot into a counting machine
George Bonnell loads a sample ballot into a counting machine during a demonstration on Wednesday in Brooklyn Park, Minn.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

During the test, alarms would sound to balk at a ballot without marking or that had too many, including stray doodles.

“Is there a point where we’d take a machine offline? Yes,” Montero said. “If we can’t get it back operating, then we’ll use a backup machine and we’ll call to have the vendor fix it.”

It all goes to show that a lot more eyes are on how ballots are handled these days, not just whose names are on them.

MPR News reporters Dana Ferguson and Dan Kraker contributed to this story.