Jennifer Brooks
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May the ballot boxes be full and the polling places empty in Minnesota this year.

The August primary is nine days away, and election officials hope you use that time to cast your vote into the nearest mailbox.

Half a million Minnesotans have requested absentee ballots already.

That’s half a million people who won’t have to wait in line on Aug. 11. Won’t need to pull on a mask, won’t need one of the single-use pens in the voting booth, won’t need to crowd the poll workers who will spend Election Day wrapped in personal protective equipment and a cloud of hand sanitizer fumes.

“This year, I really hope we see empty polling places,” said Hennepin County Elections Manager Ginny Gelms.

Minnesota — the state with the nation’s highest rate of voter turnout — wants voters, just this once, not to turn out. Stay home, stay safe, fill out an absentee ballot and turn that in instead.

“Every person who votes through the mail leaves literal and figurative space in the polling place for those who can’t — and for our election judges,” Gelms said.

Now, if everyone who requested a mail-in ballot would just mail it in.

Absentee ballot requests have increased tenfold. The number of election workers has not.

“We’re sitting here, sweating,” Gelms said with a chuckle. “We’ve got all these ballots out, sitting in people’s homes. Are they going to vote and turn them back to us? Are we going to get them all on the last day?”

If one of those ballots is sitting in your home, the best time to return it is right now. You’d be doing a real kindness for the people who are already pulling 12-hour shifts to make sure every vote counts.

“This is sort of the peak of the workload,” said Jim Howitt, absentee ballot supervisor for Hennepin County.

The pandemic disrupted Minnesota’s orderly, predictable election process. There will be fewer polling places, fewer poll workers and more people voting by mail than anyone could have imagined two years ago, when the mail-in vote count was closer to 50,000.

To handle the avalanche of absentee ballots, Hennepin County called back furloughed workers, hired temps and pulled in volunteers from other departments who had been working from home or working on projects without a looming constitutional deadline.

This election may have single-handedly saved the county’s Step Up internship program from a pandemic shutdown.

“They’ve been our crew, helping count ballots,” Howitt said of the teens and young adults who came to the internship program to learn office skills and stayed to save the 2020 election. “They’ve been doing absolutely great at it.”

In past elections, student volunteers from local colleges have helped out with the absentee ballot count. This year, Howitt said, they’re asking the college students to help out on Election Day instead, working at the polls so elderly polling place judges don’t have to.

“Right now, we have about 100 people just processing and working on the absentee ballots,” Gelms said. Even with social distancing, each ballot has at least two pairs of eyes on it through the entire process. “It’s the largest crew we’ve ever had. It’s strange because in a typical four-year cycle, the August primary in a presidential election year is typically the lowest turnout.”

There’s still time to request a mail-in ballot for next week’s primary. You might as well request one for the general election too. Early voting for November starts in September.

“It’s really unlike any election we’ve had before,” Gelms said. “It has been a challenge. But I think we’re going to make it.”

If you’d like to vote by mail in the Aug. 11 primary, there’s still time to request a ballot. Apply online through the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office at mnvotes.org.

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com

Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks