Minnesota is a month into a seven-week voting season, one of the longest in the nation. More than 1.5 million Minnesotans have already either requested or been sent a ballot in a year when 3 million people are expected to vote.
Some are eager to assure voters that there are no reasons whatever for concern about this unprecedented volume of absentee voting (“Minnesota is ready for your vote,” Opinion Exchange, Oct. 16). But consider:
Under a consent decree brokered by DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon with a third-party interest group affiliated with the Democratic National Committee, absentee ballots received by Nov. 10 will be counted — even if they do not have a postmark. That means Minnesota may not know its election outcomes until a week after Election Day. That decree is being challenged in federal court, so stay tuned.
While we must wait to find out how many voters who ordered an absentee ballot will decide to vote in person on Election Day, it is fair to say that the volume of absentee voting will be unprecedented.
The appeal of voting by absentee ballot is clear. But after you have mailed or delivered your ballot, who is counting your vote?
Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, recently held a hearing on election security. Secretary Simon did not attend the hearing. Election officials, however, from Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, testified about how absentee ballots are processed.
Kiffmeyer wanted to know whether the counties were complying with statutory requirements for the accepting and rejecting of ballots. Once a ballot is accepted, it will be added to the count, so this is a key question. Minnesota’s law is clear: Election judges accepting and rejecting ballots must be of different major political parties. Just as, on Election Day, precinct polling places are supposed to staffed by citizens from different major parties to keep things fair and honest, so are the boards counting absentee ballots.
The official from Hennepin County gave a very different answer than did her counterpart from Ramsey County. Hennepin hires election judges from both major parties to help process ballots, but it specifically excludes them from accepting and rejecting ballots. It only uses staff and “deputy county auditors” hired for the voting season.
The official cited practical difficulties in staffing a board requiring hundreds of people due to an increased volume in absentee ballots over a long voting season.
She acknowledged the party balance rule and reassured the senators that the spirit of the law was being respected, saying the deputies “serve in a nonpartisan capacity,” though she did not explain why she made no effort to at least try to hire some election judges from lists provided by the parties. Instead, she defended county policy by citing Secretary Simon’s guide for election officials that makes the party balance rule optional.
The Ramsey County official, by stark contrast, testified that the Ramsey ballot board was in full compliance with the party balance rule. Ramsey used the lists of election judges provided by the major parties. When the party lists were exhausted, he contacted election judges who had served in past elections. He did not report any difficulties in finding or working with almost 100 citizens who are now deciding which ballots will be counted.
Why does election law require party balance? After the 2008-09 recount that sent Al Franken to the U.S. Senate eight messy months after Election Day, legislators sent Gov. Tim Pawlenty a package of election reforms that included the party balance rule. The importance of party balance was reinforced in 2013 when the Legislature rejected an attempt to allow paid staff to once again decide which ballots would be counted. That proposal, led by then-Rep. Steve Simon, would have defeated the whole point of the earlier reforms.
The Minnesota Voters Alliance (MVA) has sued Secretary Simon to enforce the party balance rule as written, not as he interprets it. A judge ruled against the law as written and allowed officials to rely exclusively on paid staff and “deputies.” But judges should not rewrite statutes in the face of practical difficulties. That is the job of the Legislature, not the courts. That ruling will be appealed.
The party balance rule was passed before the 46-day early voting law. It is easy to see why some officials follow Simon’s lead and treat the law as optional. Even without Simon’s encouragement of lawlessness, and his partisan extension of the election to Nov. 10, the election season is too long for a well-run and cost-effective vote count. How much time do we really need to vote? The Legislature should shorten early voting and reinforce the party balance rule.
Active citizens from different parties keep each other and the process honest, so that when citizens wake up the day after an election, they trust and accept the outcome. Or, if a recount is required, they can trust that process, too.
Unfortunately, most counties are following Hennepin County’s example rather than Ramsey County’s. If this election is close, citizens will have good reason to question the count.
Kim Crockett is a Minnesota attorney and adviser to the Minnesota Voters Alliance.