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Election officials gear up as Election Day nears

Kandiyohi County, along with all the other counties in the state, are preparing for a busy few weeks as Election Day nears. Absentee ballots that have arrived at the county auditor's office can start to be counted and early in-person ballot voting starts next week. And, as usual, citizens can vote in person at their polling places on Nov. 3 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said the state plans to release preliminary results on Election Day night, but it will take a week before results are finalized.

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Kandiyohi County Election Judge Jan Lindblad scans test ballots into one of the tabulation machines tested Thursday at the downtown Willmar Kandiyohi County Office Building. Test was part of the Public Accuracy Test which makes sure the machines and software used during elections will accurately count the results. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — With a dramatic presidential race on the ballot, the election of 2020 was always going to be an interesting one. What has moved it to the levels of historic, and perhaps once in a lifetime, is the coronavirus pandemic and the changes that has brought to the policies, procedures, rules and traditions of the country's polls.

"2020 is an election like no other," said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon in a call with media from across the state last week.

Early on, the state knew it was going to have to make some changes to how the election would be run.

"We knew we would need to view this election in part through a public health lens," Simon said.

Absentee voting

The state has been urging voters for months to consider voting by absentee ballot as a way to reduce the number of people congregating at polling sites on Election Day and avoid the possibility of spreading the virus amongst voters and election judges. Based on the numbers, the message has been received and followed. As of Oct. 9 there were 1.3 million absentee ballots mailed out to voters, 8,000 of them in Kandiyohi County.

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"Quite a bit more than previous elections," said Kandiyohi County Auditor Mark Thompson in an interview with the West Central Tribune.

Absentee voting is secure, as each absentee ballot sent out is connected to one specific voter.

"We have triple layers of security for mail-in ballots. The first layer of security is not the signature, the first layer of security is the personal identifying information," such as a person's Social Security or driver's license number, Simon said. Any ballots missing this information won't be counted, Simon added.

Already, 5,000 completed absentee ballots in Kandiyohi County have been returned. Thanks to legislative action this year, auditor staff, who have been trained as election judges, started counting those ballots on Wednesday, two weeks prior to Election Day. Instead of having to count thousands of extra ballots on Election Day, which would take hours, those ballots will already have been tabulated and the results will just need to be added to the vote counts from the polling places.

Polling places

Voters who want to cast their votes in person still have that option. Most polling places will open at 7 a.m. on Nov. 3 and will close at 8 p.m. The act of voting will be the same, though there could be differences in how the polling place is set up along with other health safety measures such as social distancing and disinfecting of surfaces.

"We've trained the judges" on a number of COVID-19 policies and procedures, Thompson said.

The goal is to provide a safe voting experience for the voters as well as for the election judges.

"With COVID out there, the polling places have taken that into account," Thompson said. "They are trying to make the voters feel as safe as possible if they decide to vote at the polling place."

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The location of individual polling places can be found on the Secretary of State website at sos.state.mn.us .

Because so many people have requested absentee ballots, Thompson is expecting in-person voting at polling places on Election Day to be down from previous years.

"There are only so many registered voters in the county," Thompson said. "Even if you have 100 percent turnout, there is going to be less at the polls because we have so many more absentee voters."

Voters also have the option to vote early at the county election office, which is the county auditor's office in Kandiyohi County. Since Sept. 18, registered voters could fill out an absentee ballot in person. Starting next week, voters will be able to fill out a normal ballot and feed it into a machine at the auditor's office. The Kandiyohi County Auditor's Office is located in the Kandiyohi County Office Building, located at 400 Benson Ave. S.W., Willmar.

Results

When planning for this challenging election, the state Legislature also allowed voters an extra seven days for the arrival of their completed absentee ballots. As long as the completed ballot is postmarked on Nov. 3 and arrives by or on Nov. 10, and is accepted by election judges, it will be counted.

This delay means final results of local, county and state races won't be known until the late evening of Nov. 10 at the earliest. Final results for the presidential election will take even longer, since each state runs their elections differently.

Simon said the state will report any preliminary results it does have on election night, as normal. Thompson agreed, saying it is his plan to report whatever results the county has to the state that night.

During the seven days following Election Day, the state and county will continue to update results, as absentee ballots arrive. Thompson said he is currently planning on reporting to the state at least twice during that week, more if necessary. He doesn't expect a lot of ballots to arrive after the first couple of days.

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"We will just have to see what comes in," Thompson said.

Both Thompson and Simon are asking for citizens' patience and understanding when it comes to reporting of election results. There will be less instant gratification than in elections past and it will take longer to get those final numbers, but that doesn't mean something has gone wrong.

"This is how the system was designed to work, this is not an example of anyone rigging anything, stealing anything or concealing anything," Simon said.

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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