WILLMAR-- For nearly six weeks, the four members of Kandiyohi County's absentee ballot board have been meeting at the County Auditor's Office to scrutinize signatures and double-check voter registrations as part of the process to accept or reject absentee ballots.
As of Friday, the county had issued 1,238 absentee ballot applications.
Just a handful of ballots have been rejected and returned to voters, who then have the opportunity to correct an error or provide the missing information before Election Day.
Nearly all of the rejected ballots are because the information envelope that absentee voters are required to fill out did not include the signature or address of a witness.
Because missing information has been a frequent error in the past, Kandiyohi County staff members now use a yellow highlight pen to clearly show every line that needs to be filled in by the voter.
"How can they miss it?" asked Ron Carlson, a member of the absentee ballot board this week, as he showed an absentee ballot envelope that had everything filled out except the highlighted yellow line where the witness signature belonged.
By 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, the board had already found five ballots with missing signatures in a stack of about 150 ballots. The board spent about four hours that day to complete the process.
The board has met twice a week since Sept. 21 to review the returned ballots.
In the 14 days prior to the election, the pace was increased to three times a week.
Just to be clear, the board does not actually see a voter's ballot where candidates' names are checked.
That is sealed tight in a privacy envelope.
The privacy envelope is inside a white envelope. The backside of the white envelope is where all the voter information is found, including the name, address, Social Security number and signature of the voter and the all-important -- but sometimes forgotten -- signature of a witness.
Once a ballot is accepted, the still sealed privacy envelope is removed and put inside a locked ballot box, where it stays until the envelope is later opened and the ballot fed into the scanner. The absentee ballot votes won't be tallied until after 8 p.m. Tuesday.
The board is reviewing all absentee ballots cast in Kandiyohi County.
This is the second time this new process has been used. The first was in the primary election earlier this year.
In the past, election judges from each precinct would process absentee ballots at the end of a long Election Day.
Problems with absentee ballots were a key feature of the troubled U.S. Senate recount between Norm Coleman and Al Franken. Because thousands of different election judges viewed those ballots, there was a lack of consistency in which ballots were rejected or accepted.
That's why the state implemented changes that require counties to establish absentee ballot boards that are trained specifically for handling the ballots.
Besides providing greater consistency, the absentee ballot board "really takes the pressure off of the voting judges," said Bruce Heymer, another member of the board.
"They've got a good handle on it," said Mark Thompson, Kandiyohi County assistant auditor. He said the board members are "some very experienced election judges" from previous elections.
Absentee balloting will be available until 5 p.m. Monday at the auditor's office.
All absentee ballots must be returned by Tuesday in order to be counted.
For more information about absentee voting, call the Kandiyohi County Auditor's office at 320-231-6202 or go to the Minnesota Secretary of State's website: www.sos.state.mn.us