Jennifer Brooks
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Happy election week, to those who celebrate.

Half a million Minnesotans have cast early or absentee ballots and millions more will join them at the polls this Tuesday.

Every one of those ballots is a little miracle. An act of faith and hope by voters; a show of strength and duty by citizens.

If you don't believe me — and if you've watched too many cruel campaign commercials, you might not — believe Mark J. Westpfahl and his middle school civics class.

Westpfahl has been studying the 2018 elections with his 6th-, 7th- and 8th-grade students at St. Paul's Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet School. His students learned to read ballots and research candidates and evaluate polling data and talk about politics without screaming about politics. Most of all, they learned why voting matters — and why they might want to vote when it's their turn, six or so years from now.

I want to vote so my voice can be heard, his students told him.

I want to vote so they'll know I exist.

Westpfahl put a request out on Twitter, asking other Minnesotans to give his students their own reasons for voting.

They came rolling in.

"I vote because my vote matters," Dr. Lee-Ann Stephens, Minnesota's 2006 Teacher of the Year, wrote back. "I vote because I have a moral responsibility to do so. I vote because my people were denied that right and I will not be complacent about that struggle. I vote because change starts with me. I vote because I must!"

"My grandparents were immigrants in the late 1800s; I owe it to them," a retired teacher responded. "My father and mother served in the Army and the FBI; they encouraged participation. I was a union member; we understand that voting has power."

"I vote (and pay attention to current events/politics) because it is literally the least you can do as an adult citizen in a democracy," a woman named Audrey tweeted back to the students. "If you don't vote, I don't want to hear you complaining about your elected officials — you had your chance to have a say! #WhyIVote2018"

It's not hard to persuade Minnesotans to get out and vote. It's sort of our thing.

"Minnesotans are on pace to maintain our title as #1 in the country in voter participation," Secretary of State Steve Simon bragged justifiably last week. "Thank you for being the best voters in the country."

Even by Minnesota standards, the 2018 midterms are shaping up into something astonishing.

In a guarded room high in the Minneapolis skyline last week, sorting machines churned along the walls as dozens of election workers slipped thousands of Hennepin County's absentee ballots out of their envelopes.

The early turnout has been "unprecedented for a midterm," said Hennepin County Election Manager Ginny Gelms, who hasn't seen ballots coming in at this rate since the 2016 presidential election.

A week out from Election Day, Hennepin County had already received more than 100,000 vote-from-home ballots. At that point during the 2014 campaign, fewer than 30,000 absentee ballots had come back.

"We have seen an incredible increase in people voting absentee" in the four years since state law changed to make it easier for Minnesotans to vote early and from home, Gelms said.

Around her Thursday, election workers and volunteers were unsealing the vote-from-home ballots, flattening them and feeding the machines, ready to be tallied with everyone else's on the big day.

They worked in shifts, from 8 in the morning until 8 at night, to make sure every vote is counted. Many of Thursday's volunteers were students from the University of Minnesota, working in teams at long tables. Each table represented a county precinct. Each ballot from that precinct had at least two sets of eyes on it from the moment it came out of its envelope until the moment it went into the ballot reader.

If you voted from home in Minnetonka, your ballot might have found its way to student volunteers Mathew Lauer and Stacy Yuan, who teamed up at the Minnetonka precinct table on Thursday.

"I just thought it was a really cool process," said Lauer, a senior who volunteered during the 2016 elections and returned to work double shift last week. "It's also just cool meeting the different people that have time to spare for something that's kind of important."

For Yuan, a sophomore from China, an afternoon helping out the American electorate was the sort of education you won't get from a textbook.

"Everyone's so engaged," she said. "I was very moved by what I saw."

If you're making your own Election Day plans, you can visit to find your polling place and see who's on the ballot.

If you want to share your reasons #WhyIVote2018 with the students at Capitol Hill, send them on to @MarkJWestpfahl.

These kids will be watching what you do. And what you don't do. 612-673-4008 • Twitter: @stribrooks