West central Minnesota auditors expect timely reporting of results after Election Day even while counting continues another week
Local county auditors are confident they will be able to provide substantial election results after Tuesday's final day of voting in a timely and accurate way, following policies and procedures that have been in place for years, with some changes due to COVID-19. Absentee voting has surged as more people decided to vote early and counties began counting those ballots two weeks ago.
WILLMAR — While it might seem like the 2020 election has been completely different from years past, once you get past the COVID-19 caused changes, such as social distancing at the polls and the massive increase in absentee and early voting, much of this election has followed the same policies and procedures that have been in place for years.
Just days prior to the Nov. 3 election, auditors in some of the area’s counties told the West Central Tribune they were confident of providing timely and accurate vote counts soon after the polls closed, including the counting of tens of thousands of absentee ballots that arrived at county election offices by Nov. 3.
"The plan is to have all of that done, so at 8 p.m. we can return the machines (from the polling places), print the tapes and upload the results that night," said Kandiyohi County Auditor Mark Thompson, referring to the absentee and mail-in ballots returned to the county by Election Day, plus all those ballots cast at polling places.
Secretary of State Steve Simon in a news conference Monday agreed that the returns reported in the hours after the polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday should include all who voted that day in-person and also reflect all "or substantially all" of the people who voted absentee up until that time.
There will be a "rolling total of validly cast votes updated at the end of the day Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and so on until Nov. 10."
— Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon
While some states do not begin processing any ballots until Election Day, Minnesota this year allowed early ballots to be processed, though not tallied, two weeks before Nov. 3.
"We are running the ballots through now," Thompson said when interviewed late last week.
As of the morning of Nov. 3, Kandiyohi County had provided more than 9,800 absentee or mail-in ballots and just over 8,600 had already been completed and returned, according to data on the Secretary of State's website. There are more than 25,000 registered voters in the county as of Nov. 2.
Other counties also saw a significant increase in absentee and mail-in ballots. Absentee ballots are requested by the voter, while mail-in ballots are automatically sent out to all registered voters in certain precincts where there is no in-person voting on Election Day.
Swift County was among those taking advantage of an early start. Auditor Kim Saterberg said Thursday that 72.5 percent of the 970 absentee ballots that had been sent out were returned and being processed. She said 25 of the 30 precincts in the county decided to use mail-in ballots this election.
“We’re the tortoise this year, slow and steady,” said the auditor in reference to the county’s deliberate, methodical approach to assure an accurate count.
The figures as of Nov. 3, according to the state, were nearly 3,505 absentee or mail-in ballots requested in Swift County, and more than 2,900 completed and returned. The county has more than 5,600 registered voters, according to Secretary of State's Office figures dated Nov. 2.
Chippewa County was also managing a record number of early votes. Michelle May, auditor/treasurer, said the county had sent out roughly 1,600 absentee ballots as of Thursday as well as 1,200 mail-in ballots. As of Thursday, 30 percent of those ballots had already been returned and were in the process of being counted. There are roughly 7,000 registered voters in the county.
By the morning of Nov. 3, according to the state, those figures had jumped. Of 4,168 ballots requested in Chippewa County, 3,496 had been returned.
In Renville County, Auditor/Treasurer Marc Iverson reported Thursday that 1,945 ballots had already been returned for processing. The county had sent out approximately 700 ballots to the registered voters in five mail-in precincts and more than 1,900 absentee ballots to those requesting them, for a total of 2,671 as of Oct. 29.
As of Nov. 3, those figures had risen slightly to 2,774 ballots requested and 2,390 returned. Renville County has nearly 8,800 registered voters.
Statewide, more than 1.85 million absentee and mail-in ballots had been accepted as of Tuesday morning among more than 2.1 million that were requested, leaving roughly 283,000 ballots outstanding.
Ballots that are postmarked by Tuesday and arrive by Nov. 10 will be counted, under a deal previously reached by Secretary Simon, political parties and various voting rights groups to collect absentee ballots for an additional week to accommodate voters during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A three-member panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week ruled in support of a pair of Minnesota Republican electors who challenged that decision. The court did not strike down the seven-day extension, but said late arrivals should be segregated in case later court rulings determine they should not be counted.
Secretary Simon said Monday that the state will segregate the valid absentee ballots received after 8 p.m. Nov. 3, but they will be counted. There will be a "rolling total of validly cast votes updated at the end of the day Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and so on until Nov. 10."
The 8th Circuit Court ruling did not invalidate any ballots, he said. It only required they be segregated.
"For anyone to invalidate a ballot, they are going to have to step up ... and ask the court to specifically invalidate certain ballots that are in that pile (of segregated ballots)," Simon said.
Thompson doesn't expect there to be many ballots arriving past Election Day in Kandiyohi County. The seven-day extension was so new that Thompson said he thinks most voters were unaware of it and made sure to get their ballots back in.
"Nov. 3 was the deadline" to many voters this year, Thompson said.
And once the federal court ruled Thursday, state officials engaged in a media blitz encouraging voters to return their ballots by Nov. 3 or vote in person so as to avoid even the possibility of their vote not being counted.
Those voters who decided to still vote at their local polling places, did see changes, but overall the act of voting was the same. Due to COVID-19, Thompson said voters were being asked to stay at least 6 feet apart from other people, each voter received their own pen to mark their ballots and there was increased cleaning of shared spaces, such as voting booths.
Even when all the counties have uploaded their results to the Minnesota Secretary of State's office after Nov. 10, those numbers aren't final until each county, and the state, canvass the results.
A county canvassing board is made up of the district court administrator, the county auditor, the mayor or chair of the largest municipality of the county and two members of the county board. The canvassing board then reviews the county's election results and approves them, before being sent to the State Secretary of State. Those county results are then added to the statewide canvass report, which needs to be reviewed and approved by the state canvassing board.
This year counties have to canvass their results by Nov. 13. Kandiyohi County's canvassing board is meeting at 1 p.m. Nov. 12. Swift County will canvass its results on Nov. 12 and Chippewa and Renville counties on Nov. 13. The state canvassing board will meet Nov. 24.
"That is when the votes are final, final," Thompson said.
Forum News Service Capitol Correspondent Dana Ferguson contributed to this story.