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Voters wearing masks streamed into the polls Tuesday to cast their ballots in the midst of the pandemic — unlike a record number of Minnesotans who took advantage of early voting this year.

For some, going to the voting booth on Election Day is a strongly held tradition they refused to miss despite the novel coronavirus. Some just found it easier because they were too busy to pursue an absentee ballot and turn it in before the Nov. 3 election. Others feared mail-in ballots would go uncounted.

"There's such a climate of mistrust," said Kristie Pikkaraine of Minneapolis, who voted at the Harrison Education Center on Tuesday. "I want to make sure my vote is counted and counted fast."

By the time polls opened at 7 a.m., many voters throughout the Twin Cities were lined up outside polling places, eager to get into the door. Steady numbers throughout the day surprised some poll workers because more than half the registered voters in their precincts had voted early.

"I think it's cool people are coming in," said Rhonda Tufte, an election judge in Apple Valley's Precinct 13. "That's pretty good considering there's a pandemic."

As of Tuesday, 2,499 Minnesotans have died from the virus, which is rapidly spreading throughout the state. Before Election Day, state health officials advised Minnesotans to consider voting early to help stem the spread of COVID-19. That said, they said the risk of voting in person on Tuesday would be comparable to going to the grocery store.

"My sense is that the main effect of COVID on turnout has been to simply shift more people than usual in the direction of casting mail ballots or voting early in person in settings where large crowds were perhaps less likely than on Election Day itself," said Christopher Federico, a professor of political science and psychology at the University of Minnesota.

Still, some voters were concerned Tuesday about encountering long lines or conditions that might expose them to the highly contagious virus. Many left the polls impressed by the precautions that were being taken.

Most precincts had erected plexiglass shields to separate poll workers and voters. Pens and voting booths were sanitized. Voters stood 6 feet apart, and many took a squirt of hand sanitizer before and after they walked in.

The pull of what is being touted as a historic election drew voters from both sides of the political spectrum.

"I wore a mask. I'm not worried about the virus," said Helene Houle of St. Paul, who added that she felt more secure voting for President Donald Trump in person.

Joe Biden supporter Daniel Nenneman of Lakeville also was wedded to voting on Election Day, unlike his wife, who voted early.

"It's a big event," he said, his mask on and a coffee in hand as he waited in line with more than three dozen other voters. "I wanted to be part of it."

Jordan Brendel, her 5-month-old son in a stroller and her 10-year-old daughter at her side, found herself in the same line as it snaked outside the Lakeville water treatment facility.

"I should have voted early," she said, noting that she and her family have been cautious about going out in public during the pandemic. "But life is chaotic with four kids."

Still, she was committed to voting Tuesday. "I have three daughters," said Brendel, a Biden supporter. "There are certain things I have to do."

Inside the polls, workers kept a steady pace moving voters through.

Minnesota election officials worried that the pandemic would deter people from stepping up to work at the polls, particularly older Minnesotans who have signed up to help in the past.

But election officials at many polling places said that wasn't a problem in their precincts.

"Four of the nine workers here are new and younger," said Tufte in Apple Valley.

Ramsey County more than doubled the number of poll workers to 2,500 this election, with about 700 placed on a waiting list, said David Triplett, the county's elections manager.

"People want to make sure democracy is working, and polling places are the front lines," he said.

And for those casting their votes Tuesday, it also was a matter of civic duty. Sure, being exposed to the coronavirus is a concern, said Bryan Thao Worra, a Lao American writer who lives in north Minneapolis.

"I love the sense of tradition of voting," he said. "What America gave to us, we owe it to ourselves to vote."

marylynn.smith@startribune.com

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janet.moore@startribune.com

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