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Minnesota Senate District 20 primary puts counties in a time crunch

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GRANITE FALLS -- With only a three-week notice, election officials from seven area counties have been scrambling to finalize details for a special primary election Tuesday in Senate District 20.

Voters there are being asked to select a successor to the late Sen. Gary Kubly, who died March 2.

Under state law, a replacement must be elected if the vacancy occurs while the Legislature is in session.

Because the election must be held within 33 days following the vacancy, counties in the district had little time to waste.

The district includes all of Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Lincoln, Renville, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties in western Minnesota.

There were ballots to print, precincts to notify, election judges to secure, absentee ballots to administer and computer chips to program for ballot machines that assist people with disabilities.

And all of this was done while counties were doing their regular business, including preparing and sending out property tax notices.

"It's kind of a whirlwind," said Janel Timm, property and public services director for Yellow Medicine County.

Normally, counties take three to four months to plan and prepare for an election -- not three weeks.

"It's been a challenge, but it's part of the business," said Jon Clausen, Chippewa County auditor, who said his team is ready for Tuesday.

Two DFL candidates -- Rep. Lyle Koenen of Clara City and John Schultz of Correll -- are running in the primary on Tuesday.

Once that election is done, counties will have another two weeks to get ready for the special election April 10 to select a senator to fill out Kubly's term.

Besides the DFL winner from the primary race, Independence Party member Leon Greenslit, of Olivia, and Republican Gregg Kulberg, of Hector, will be competing for the seat in the special election April 10.

Conducting two special elections on short notice has meant early mornings and late nights for county employees.

Shortly after the special election dates were announced, county election officials from the seven counties held a telephone conference with the Secretary of State's office to coordinate details.

"It was a concerted effort from everyone in this district," said Renville County Auditor Larry Jacobs.

Because there's just one race on the ballot, it was agreed that the ballots would be hand-counted rather than using the computerized tabulator that requires costly and time-consuming programming.

"We'll be just as efficient doing it by hand," said Timm, adding that this process will save counties time and money, "which are in short order."

Law requires that the AutoMARK ballot machines that assist voters with disabilities be at the polling locations.

One of the first items on the to-do list was getting ballots printed. Most counties had them within 24 hours after placing their order.

One of the biggest challenges for coordinating the two special elections was finding election judges.

Many of the regulars are snowbirds who are still down South, Timm said. "People were not expecting to be called to serve again."

New judges have been recruited, which means many of the counties will be conducting last-minute training.

Some counties also have precincts that do not have polling locations but have mail ballots instead. Those primary ballots had to be sent out and must be returned by Tuesday.

People have already begun casting absentee ballots for the primary.

By law, county offices in District 20 will be open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. this Saturday for absentee voting for the primary.

That opportunity for the April 10 special election will also be available the Saturday prior to that day, which means county workers will be in the office during the Easter weekend to accommodate absentee voters.

It's all part of the process, said Jacobs. "We live in a democracy and this is what we need to do."

Given the fact that the 2012 legislative session will be nearly over by the time a new senator is elected, it's been questioned why someone wasn't appointed to fill Kubly's term. Minnesota law does not allow for an individual to be appointed, even though in this case District 20 will only exist until the end of the year.

Then, because of redistricting that changed the geographic borders of the district, another election will be held in November involving a new slate of candidates. Those candidates will be running to represent the new Senate District 17.

Koenen and fellow DFL'er Larry Rice, of Willmar, have indicated they will run for that seat.

Whoever gets the DFL nod will take on incumbent Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, whose district's boundaries have also been shifted and moved to the new District 17, which includes all of Kandiyohi, Swift, Chippewa counties and a portion of Renville County.

The polls for both special elections will open at the same time as the general election in 2010. For the larger precincts, that means polls will open at 7 a.m. The smaller precincts will begin polling at 10 a.m. All polls will close at 8 p.m.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750