Jennifer Brooks
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The important thing, election officials say, is to have a plan.

Plan when you’re going to vote. Plan how you’re going to vote. Then make a backup plan for your plan, because it’s 2020 and you’ve seen what this year does to plans.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t wait,” I told the clerks at the early voting polling station in downtown Minneapolis on Friday morning, in the first hours of the first day of early voting in Minnesota.

I’d planned to vote by mail, but the mail-in ballots hadn’t even been mailed out yet, so I went with my backup plan: immediate gratification.

“No problem,” the clerk said, making a note of the change in the computer before sliding my ballot through a slot in the plexiglass shield between us. Most of the people ahead of me in line had told her the same thing.

This year has thrown a lot at voters, and at the people who count the votes. Six months into the pandemic and six weeks out from the election, we’re adapting.

“It’s never too early in the election to start planning, that’s rule number one,” said Michael Stalberger, who oversees elections for Blue Earth County, where 14,000 of the 38,000 registered voters have already requested mail-in ballots.

About half the requested ballots are going out to rural Blue Earth County voters who always vote by mail because they live in townships or small cities without polling places. But the pandemic introduced thousands of other Minnesotans to the ease and comfort of voting from your own couch.

By Friday morning, 1,070,487 Minnesotans had requested absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 general election. Everyone who hasn’t requested a ballot yet is going to get a letter from Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, inviting them to request one. Because of all the plans you can make, having the ballot come to you is absolutely the easiest, safest and most secure.

Everybody who votes from home, Simon pointed out, is a body that won’t be in line on Election Day.

There’s been some confusion about the difference between voting by mail and voting absentee in Minnesota, so just to clarify: When you vote absentee, you vote by mail. Whereas when you vote by mail, you vote by mail.

If you do plan to vote in person, local election officials plan to be ready.

“We need people to figure out what their plan is, what’s the right way to vote, for them, in the 2020 election,” Stalberger said.

In a normal election year, about a quarter of Blue Earth’s ballots arrive before Election Day. During the primary, the numbers flipped: 70% of voters voted early or by mail.

The change in the way Minnesota votes meant a change in the way Minnesota counts the votes.

Election officials have shuttered polling places that were too small for social distancing and brought on extra staff to sort through all those early ballots.

If you’re voting in Mankato, the person processing your absentee ballot might be on loan from the planning and zoning department. The judge at the polling place might be an actual municipal judge, helping out; or a high school student too young to vote but volunteering at the polls.

It takes about 30,000 poll workers to pull off a Minnesota election. If you’re at least 16 years old and willing to mask up and show up, visit the “Become an Election Judge” page on the secretary of state’s website for a list of counties and cities that need you.

For everyone else, what matters is that you plan to vote — and you have a plan to vote.

“In prior years, we would have been going around in the dorms, and going around to nearby apartment units, really making sure we were talking to students and reminding them to vote,” said Emma Zellmer, a junior at Minnesota State University Mankato and vice chair of Students United, representing 65,000 students at seven state universities. “Knock on the door, get them out of bed and remind them that this is Election Day.”

Locked down and isolated on campuses across the state, Minnesota college students are getting out the vote even if they can’t get out.

Young voters are underrepresented in elections already, Zellmer said. She doesn’t want those young votes and young voices lost this election year.

“Students are very uncertain right now if they’re even going to be able to stay on campus” by Nov. 3, she said. “So we are encouraging people to vote by mail.”

There’s plenty of time to request a ballot. Plenty of time to vote by mail. Plenty of time to research the candidates and ballot questions. Plenty of time to get polling places set up for everyone who wants to vote on Election Day, Nov. 3.

To make your plans, visit: www.sos.state.mn.us/elections-voting.

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008 Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks