Your questions about the final days of absentee voting, answered

People seen from overhead stand in a socially distanced line.
People fill out absentee ballot applications as they wait in line to early vote at the Bloomington Arts Center in Bloomington, Minn., on Oct. 31.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

MPR News reader James Larson of Golden Valley asked us, “Do I need a witness signature or a notarized one if I vote in person at an early voting site?”

While that question is very specific, it opens the door to a set of questions you may be having in the final days of absentee voting before Election Day.

A follow-up with Cassondra Knudson, the deputy communications director and press secretary for the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office, gave us some final insight about absentee voting.

“If you vote absentee in person, you do not need a witness,” Knudson stated.

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Mailing an absentee ballot requires a witness, though. What’s the difference? Let’s think of it as a wedding.

Some people plan for their wedding to be a spectacle, while some want to get the paperwork done and over with – no in-person wedding desired. But for it to be legal, you still need a witness to authorize your paperwork.

In this case, your absentee ballot is your marriage license. And, like a marriage license, you need a witness. Knudson said we need witnesses to “ensure you are getting an unmarked ballot and are not being persuaded to vote for one person over another at the polling place.”

Who can act as my witness for my absentee ballot?

Well, not just anyone.

Knudson said the “witness can be either a registered Minnesota voter or notary.” People are appointed as a notary public by state government which grants them authorization to sign witness to multiple legal documents such as estate, licenses, and in this specific case: absentee ballots. Notary publics also add their affix stamp as proof they are a real notary.

You might assume absentee voting in person doesn’t involve any witnesses. But if your absentee-ballot-themed wedding is in person, you already have a witness waiting at your venue: The election official or election judge is the stand-in witness of your absentee vote in person.

In a sense, the answer to the question is yes, both forms of absentee voting require a witness: Absentee voting by mail grants you the option to choose your witness, while absentee voting in person already has it covered for you. 

Neither option is better than the other; think of it as two weddings with different themes but the same result at the end.

How do county election centers know the witness is valid? 

The witness section on an absentee ballot
This sample shows the witness section on an envelope for an absentee ballot in Minnesota.
Courtesy of Cassondra Knudson

Witnesses sign under oath, and if you lie under oath that’s a crime and you could get jail time for perjury.

If you have trouble reading the fine print, when you sign off as a witness you are declaring the following: The voter showed you the blank ballots before voting; the voter marked the ballots in private; the voter endorsed and sealed the ballot in ballot envelope; and you are an eligible witness because you are a registered voter in Minnesota, a notary or are authorized to sign oaths.

I received an absentee ballot but haven’t filled it out yet. Is it too late to find a witness and mail my absentee ballot? 

Knudson advises: “After November 1, voters are encouraged to bring their ballot to their county election office to ensure it is received in time to be counted. Some counties have 24/7 drop boxes that are secure and monitored around the clock to allow voters to cast their ballot at any time. Voters can track their ballot online at”

Say you’ve received your absentee ballot but want to send it directly to a county elections office. Similar to wedding licenses, you have to license it within the county you reside.

“You must return your ballot to the county that mailed it to you,” Knudson said.

If you filled out your absentee ballot and don’t have time to drop it off at a county election office even with their extended hours, you can find a drop box.

There’s also “agent delivery.” Agent delivery is when someone picks up and returns your absentee ballot on your behalf. It’s an option only if you are hospitalized or disabled, or you live in a nursing home, assisted living facility, residential treatment center, group home or women's shelter.

No matter what method you choose, you have until 3 p.m. on Election Day to drop it off. 

If it comes down to Election Day and you still haven’t dropped off your absentee ballot, you can still vote at your polling place, you just “spoil the old ballot and get a new one,” Knudson said.

How do I ‘spoil’ the absentee ballot so I can instead vote in person on Election Day?

“Go to your local polling place and notify your election judge,” Knudson said.

The election judge will “spoil,” or cancel, your old ballot in the electronic system and issue you a new one so you can vote. You can hand the old ballot to the election judge or shred it at home.

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