WILLMAR — Minnesota offers citizens a few different ways to vote including in person on Election Day, absentee voting and early, in-person voting. If the number of primary absentee ballots already requested in Minnesota, more than 545,000 since last Friday, is any indication, for many this year the ballot box will look more like the mailbox.

The Kandiyohi County Auditor's office has accepted 1,500 completed primary ballots from voters so far, with more coming in every day. In 2018, there were 893 primary absentee ballots recorded, which includes the vote-by-mail precincts of Arctander, Mamre and Rosleand townships and the city of Lake Lillian.

"We've been busy, especially for a primary," said Mark Thompson, Kandiyohi County Auditor/Treasurer.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Minnesota and local counties are urging voters to vote absentee, as a way to avoid any virus outbreaks at the polls. The message seems to be getting out.

"If the turnout is the same historically, as the other primaries, it is setting up that the polling places will be much less active because we have received so many more absentee ballots than normal for a primary," Thompson said.

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Minnesota does not have universal mail-in voting, which means a registered voter must request a ballot be sent to them. That can be done on the Minnesota Secretary of State website. It usually takes only a few days for a ballot to arrive to a voter.

"The day we get the application is the day we send it out," said Cathy Pederson, Kandiyohi County Assistant Auditor.

Voters need to make sure their completed ballot is postmarked by the primary or general election day. This year the state is requiring all primary absentee ballots postmarked by Aug. 11 and received within two days to be counted. For the general election, ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 and received no more than seven days later will be counted and added to the total. Completed ballots can also be dropped off at the county auditor's office.

"They're expecting so many more absentee ballots," Thompson said.

This longer window for ballots to arrive could impact how long it takes to announce final results. For the primary election, completed results are required by the canvassing date of Aug. 14. The general election's final results could take up to a week to be announced. If a race is close, it could be several days before a winner is declared, something modern-era voters are not used to.

"People want it quick, and when it is not, they wonder why and start asking a lot of questions," Thompson said.

Both Thompson and Pederson said Minnesota's absentee voting system is safe and secure.

"I feel Minnesota does an awesome job," Pederson said.

When applying for an absentee ballot, a voter must register and supply an identification number such as their driver's license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number. That number is then used to match up returning ballots with the correct voter. All absentee ballots are tracked using the state's voter registration system, and any time a ballot goes out, the voter is flagged so duplicate ballots are not sent out.

"I think it is very secure in the state of Minnesota," Thompson said.

Those who still want to cast their ballots in person can do so. All polling places will be open and staffed for the primary and general election. Things will be different though.

Polling places will practice social distancing, and mask wearing is strongly encouraged. Thompson said the county has been delivering personal protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitizer to all the precincts, though more will probably be needed. Each voter will be given their own pen to use, which they keep. High-touch areas such as the voting booths will be cleaned between voters.

"They (polling places) might have to be set up a little bit differently than in the past." Thompson said.

The election judges who will be managing each polling place have been trained on the new procedures. And while there have been reports of a shortage of election judges in some areas, Kandiyohi County looks to be in a good place.

"I think they will do a good job," Pederson said.

For those wanting to vote early in person, they have until Aug. 10 for the primary. In-person early voting for the general election will go from Sept. 18 to Nov. 2.

Kandiyohi County'S early in-person voting takes place at the county auditor's office at the County Office Building in downtown Willmar.

Precincts can receive extra funding this year in the shape of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act grants. The Kandiyohi County Board approved of Thompson's application to the secretary of state for a $47,074 CARES election grant which will be shared between the county, cities and townships.

"It is for COVID-related expenses," such as PPE and additional absentee ballot judges, Thompson said.

Even with the uncertainties and unknowns surrounding the pandemic and just how it will end up impacting this year's elections, Thompson and Pederson are optimistic. They expect turnout to be down at the polling places but absentee ballots will make up for that.

"I think it will run smoothly," Thompson said.