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Kandiyohi County precincts join the vote-by-mail ranks

WILLMAR — In Lake Lillian, preparation for an election used to start months ahead of time. Election judges had to be recruited and trained. Voting equipment had to be tested.

All of that is changing this year as the city joins the growing ranks of Minnesota voting precincts opting to conduct elections entirely by mail.

Voters will face a learning curve as they get used to the new process, said John Douville, clerk-treasurer for the city of Lake Lillian.

But in the long run, it will be more efficient for the city and more convenient for voters, he said.

"We're always looking for ways to do things better and more economically. Mail balloting seemed to fit that bill for smaller communities," Douville said.

The city of Lake Lillian and Arctander Township are the first two precincts in Kandiyohi County to go with vote-by-mail.

The option is available in Minnesota to rural townships and to small cities with 400 or fewer registered voters — and it's catching on. In many of the state's predominantly rural counties, voters in more than half of the precincts will be making a trip to the post office instead of the polls to cast their ballot in the Aug. 14 primary and Nov. 6 general election.

In Kandiyohi County, the switch to vote-by-mail will affect a total of about 350 registered voters in the city of Lake Lillian and in Arctander Township.

The county is piloting the process this year, said Mark Thompson, Kandiyohi County auditor-treasurer. "Down the road we'll see if anybody else is interested," he said.

Supporters of vote-by-mail say it's convenient for voters, encourages more voter participation and costs less to administer.

It's "very, very helpful to the smaller precincts" that might otherwise struggle with the requirements for operating a polling place on Election Day, Thompson said.

For one thing, expenses for mail-only balloting are typically lower. Douville, who is also city administrator for the city of Cosmos where the switch to vote-by-mail is happening as well, estimates the cost at one-third or less than the cost of conducting an election at a traditional polling place.

He and Thompson said it has been a growing challenge for small rural precincts to find election judges.

Judges not only must be trained, they also must be able to staff their polling place for the entire time the polls are open, even for a small primary election that might have two or three questions on the ballot and draw a turnout of a couple dozen voters.

It's also becoming a challenge for small local jurisdictions to invest in new election equipment to replace aging machines and continue to ensure accuracy and security.

"Our machines are getting older," Douville said. "They're due for replacement in the not-too-distant future."

From a voting standpoint, vote-by-mail is seen as convenient. There's no need to take time off work, no standing in line at the polls and, for voters who may face transportation barriers, no need to find a ride to the polls.

And in a state where Election Day might bring a thunderstorm, a heat wave or a snowstorm, there's this: "You take weather out as a factor," Douville said.

Local officials acknowledge the change may take time for voters to get used to.

"It's new to the residents. The first time is going to be a learning curve for everybody," Douville said.

Some voters undoubtedly will miss the collective civic experience of going to the polls. Virtually no Minnesota precinct that has adopted vote-by-mail has opted to go back to traditional polling, however, and in some states such as Colorado and Oregon, all elections are now conducted by mail.

Once local voters are used to it, Thompson thinks interest will grow. "In the future I see more precincts wanting to get into mail balloting," he said.

"We all want people to participate in the election process," Douville said. "We're just asking that they try it with an open mind."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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