A record number of Minnesotans are expected to vote by mail ahead of the Nov. 3 general election. As of Friday, Oct. 30, nearly 2 million voters had requested absentee ballots.
So what happens after you seal, sign and send in your vote? Here’s a look at how no-excuse absentee ballots are processed and counted.
1. Request a ballot
After a ballot is requested, election officials create an absentee voter record linked to your name. The envelope used to send it in carries a unique barcode linking it to that record in the system.
2. Submit the ballot
Once you fill out your ballot, it’s time to send it in. The ballot itself goes in an unmarked envelope. That sealed envelope goes inside a white signature envelope. The signature envelope includes fields for your name, signature and an ID number you submitted as part of your absentee ballot request, typically either a driver’s license number or the last four digits of a Social Security number.
Most years, you need a witness signature on the outer envelope. That rule has been waived in light of the pandemic. You will still need a signature, however, if you are completing your registration by mail.
You can submit your completed and sealed ballot by mail or drop off at your county’s election office. This year, Secretary of State Steve Simon originally said ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 3 and received within seven days of Election Day. But a late decision by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ordering election officials to set aside late ballots has imperiled that change. At this point, officials recommend you drop off your absentee ballot or vote in person instead.
3. Ballot is received, recorded
Your ballot arrives at the county election office. A staff member dates and stamps or initials the envelope and scans it into the system using that unique barcode on the envelope. Your voter record is updated to show your ballot made it. The envelopes containing the ballots are stored in a secure location.
4. Signature envelope is confirmed
Each county has a “Ballot Board” tasked with reviewing and processing absentee votes. Ballot board members are typically election judges from different political parties or county staff. Step one is to review the signature envelope. If the name and ID number match the information in your absentee voter application, and the envelope is signed, the ballot is accepted. If the ID number doesn’t match, the ballot board members can compare the signature on the envelope to one on file as alternative verification. Officials also double check that you are registered to vote and confirm you haven’t already cast a ballot in person.
5. Ballot is accepted
Once your ballot is accepted, the board members open the signature envelope and set aside the envelopes containing the ballots. Those signature envelopes are saved for record-keeping. Officials update your absentee voter record and the master voter roster to reflect that your ballot has been accepted. An “AB,” for absentee ballot, goes next to your name in the voter roster, which is the master list of all eligible voters for that election.
6. Ballots are counted
Fourteen days before the election, local officials can start the next and final step in processing the submitted ballots. That inner envelope is opened and your ballot is run through a machine that counts the votes. Your ballot will be recorded, but vote counts for individual candidates aren’t reported until the polls close on election night.
7. Congrats! You (officially) voted
And with that, you’ve officially earned your “I voted” sticker. You can confirm that your ballot was received and accepted on the Secretary of State’s website.
8. Votes are reported
Although hundreds of thousands of ballots like yours will be processed in the weeks leading up to the election, the votes themselves won’t be officially tallied until election night. When the polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3, election officials run a program that adds up all those ballots processed by the tabulating machine. Those results are reported to the Secretary of State and posted by election officials and news organizations, including at www.startribune.com.
9. Officials process final votes
Most years, the ballot-counting is done on election night.This year, the deadline for receiving and processing ballots was extended in light of the coronavirus pandemic. That window is the now the subject of a legal fight. But if it stands, seven days following the election, officials could continue to process ballots that were postmarked by Nov. 3 but received after election day. That means results could be updated through Nov. 10.
Do I need a reason to vote early?
No. Minnesota is one of 34 states that offers no-excuse absentee voting, meaning any eligible resident can cast a ballot before election day. The option has grown in popularity since the law was changed in 2013.
What happens if I decide to vote early in person? Is the process different?
In addition to voting by mail, Minnesotans can drop their completed and sealed ballot at a county election office or fill out an absentee ballot in person prior to election day. If you drop off the ballot mailed to your home, be sure to fill out the signature envelope as instructed. If you vote early by filling out a fresh ballot in person, you will compete the materials and hand them in at your county election office or early voting site. Starting a week before the election, some jurisdictions allow you to submit your ballot into the tabulation machine yourself.
What if I’m not registered?
You can still vote early, either in person or via mail. If you request a mail-in ballot and are not registered, election officials will send you a voter registration form to send in along with the ballot. Unlike the ballot itself, that form does require the signature of a witness who can attest you have a driver’s license or utility bill demonstrating your residency. Be sure to bring those documents if you plan to register to vote in person, either early or on Election Day.
How do I know if my mail-in ballot was received and processed?
You can track your ballot’s progress on the Secretary of State’s website.
What happens if my ballot was rejected by the ballot board?
If your ballot was processed and rejected more than five days out from the election, officials should have mailed you a replacement with an explanation of what went wrong. If there’s an issue with your ballot within that five day window, they will attempt to reach you by phone or email.
I requested a mail-in ballot but lost it or I’m worried it won’t arrive in time to count. I want to vote in person on Election Day instead. Can I do that?
Yes. Election officials will “spoil,” or invalidate, the original ballot assigned to your voter record and give you a new one. If a “spoiled” mail-in ballot arrives after your new one has been cast, it will not count. You can also drop off your filled-out absentee ballot at the address on the return envelope, typically the county election office.
I don’t remember voting, but the polling place records say I did. How do we resolve this?
Election officials have to keep the ballots and the envelopes they arrived in until after the election. That means there’s a paper trail they can check to see if you did indeed send in a ballot.
I submitted my ballot by mail, but I’ve since changed my mind about who I want to back. Can I get a new one?
Not at this point. State law does allow early voters to “spoil” a submitted ballot and cast a new one up to 14 days before Election Day. That deadline passed on Oct. 20.
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Will the increase in absentee ballots impact results?
Results will start to post once the polls close at 8 p.m. Nov. 3. The change allowing ballots to arrive -- and be counted -- up to seven days after Nov. 3 could delay calls in some close races if it survives the ongoing legal battles.
I plan to vote in person. Will the process be different because of coronavirus?
The most visible differences will be new policies and precautions to reduce the risk of exposure. All poll workers will wear masks. Extra masks for voters and ample sanitizer will be available on site. Social distancing guidelines could make lines appear longer than usual.
Still have questions? Check out our guide to early voting here.
Correction: An updated version of this article online misstated when voters can submit the ballot into the tabulation machine themselves for the general election. That can start up to seven days before the election.
Illustrations: Mark Boswell, Noun Project