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The Minneapolis early voting center was ready for a crowd. Workers set up stanchions outside in case a queue formed, and a throng of elections staff stood ready to assist.

But the hordes of early voters they saw two years ago did not return this week.

"It's kind of the end of COVID and people don't feel like, 'Oh, I have to do this, I don't know if I'll be sick or if I'll get sick," said Stephanie McCullough-Cain, a chaplain at the VA Medical Center, who dropped off her mail ballot Thursday because she has a party Tuesday, primary day.

Nearly 108,000 Minnesotans statewide had voted in-person or by mail for the primary election as of Friday. Early turnout has plummeted from the record-breaking numbers of the 2020 election, when Minnesotans were avoiding crowds in the first months of the pandemic. It appears likely to end up similar to the last midterm primary in 2018 when about 144,000 absentee ballots were accepted.

Meanwhile, candidates facing off with primary opponents — or competing in the First Congressional District special election — are urging people to vote early or show up at the polls Tuesday.

In the First District, GOP candidate Brad Finstad's campaign spokesman said texts, phone calls and ads are intensifying in the final days. Fifth District U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar is holding a get-out-the-vote rally Saturday with several fellow progressive Democratic congresswomen from the group known as "The Squad." And U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum has four door-knocking events planned this weekend, as her DFL primary challenger Amane Badhasso is also hitting neighborhoods, farmers markets and a county fair.

"It's an all-out push," McCollum's chief of staff Bill Harper said. "But it's August in Minnesota."

It remains to be seen how many voters are paying attention in the middle of summer — particularly when the primary election doesn't have a hotly contested top-of-the-ticket race.

"The competitive races drive so much of [the turnout]," said Aaron Grossman, a Minneapolis elections supervisor. But he said the lagging primary participation doesn't necessarily mean that will be the case in November.

"I definitely wouldn't say a primary voter turnout number has a direct bearing on the general election. They are just two different things," Grossman said.

Election officials have been watching closely to see if the massive popularity of absentee voting in the 2020 election continues this year.

"We just don't know what the staying power of that may be," Grossman said.

He said people needed to request a ballot to vote by mail again this election and might not have tuned in early enough to do so. Ballots must arrive at election offices by Tuesday.

At the Minneapolis early voting center, several people said they had voted early for the first time two years ago and liked the convenience.

"Then you are done and don't have to worry about it on that day," Nancy Miller said, as her husband, Paul Spika, added, "Avoid the crowds."

A bucket full of “I voted early” stickers sit near an exit door at the Minneapolis early voting center.
A bucket full of “I voted early” stickers sit near an exit door at the Minneapolis early voting center.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

In Hennepin County, Elections Manager Ginny Gelms said Thursday that the county had accepted only about 20,500 absentee ballots compared with nearly six times that many at this time in 2020 and around 22,000 in 2018.

"The number of absentee ballots we have in right now, is that going to be indicative of turnout overall for this primary?" Gelms said. "Or is it just that a few fewer people are voting absentee and those people will show up in the polling place on primary day?

"Maybe people are interested in going back to the polling place after having stayed home two years ago."

Interest in the primary four years ago may have been buoyed by a wide-open governor's race and two U.S. Senate primary elections, including a special primary to fill Sen. Al Franken's open seat, Ramsey County spokeswoman Allison Winters said.

However, she said that by a week before this year's primary, Ramsey County had accepted about 2,200 more ballots than it had at the same point in 2018.

Typically about 75% of the county's absentee voting happens in the week before Election Day, Winters said, so a significant increase is expected.

Several early voters in Minneapolis said they were motivated to turn out this year by the battle for the open Hennepin County Attorney's seat and the Fifth District primary between incumbent Omar and challenger Don Samuels.

Heated Minnesota legislative primaries are also driving voters in certain parts of the state to show up Tuesday or before. The once-a-decade redistricting process, which redrew the state's political district boundaries, contributed to a higher-than-usual number of primary races this year. Republicans have about two dozen primaries for House or Senate seats. Democrats have fewer intra-party battles but are facing off in a number of districts, including several in St. Paul.

Legislative candidates and the campaign arms of the House and Senate caucuses have been knocking on doors and sending out last-minute e-mails urging people to have a voting plan or to contribute to their campaigns.

While candidates running for offices ranging from the Legislature to attorney general are making their final primary pitches, the biggest battle may lie in southern Minnesota's First Congressional District. Voters there will not only narrow the political field Tuesday, they will send someone to Washington to fill the open seat previously held by U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who died in February.

"Trying to get people to go — that maybe wouldn't normally be primary voters, because it's not a primary, but it's on a primary day — is a little bit of an effort in education," said David FitzSimmons. the campaign spokesman for GOP candidate Finstad. "A lot of people are very aware and very energized to vote. And there's others where definitely the confusion factor is there."

The dynamics of Tuesday's primary are complicated, agreed Maggiy Emery, deputy campaign manager for DFL candidate Jeff Ettinger. But she said in a statement that Ettinger's campaign has hundreds of volunteers working to turn out voters.

"We feel confident that Jeff's efforts to show up in every corner of the district from Luverne to La Crescent have given voters the knowledge and tools they need to confidently make their special election and primary election votes count on or before Tuesday," Emery said.