Nobles County earns low marks for voting access
WORTHINGTON — In its first-ever evaluation of voting access in Minnesota, the Center for American Progress Action Fund recently released a report identifying Nobles County as one of the worst in the state for voter turnout, voter registration and the number of voters purged from the voting rolls in the 2012 presidential election.
The rankings were based on information gathered from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Election Assistance Commission, according to Anna Chu, policy director for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, based in Washington, D.C.
“What we wanted to do is dive down and see, from a data standpoint, what was happening in terms of how elections were being administered at the local level,” Chu explained.
Nobles, along with Polk (county seat is Crookston in northwest Minnesota) and Pine (county seat is Pine City in east central Minnesota), were deemed to have the worst voting access in the report. Chu said access is the first barrier to voting.
Factoring the overall voting average of the state, Nobles County was third poorest in voter turnout, based upon a citizen voting-age population of 13,640, as provided by the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimated range from 2007-2011.
Nobles County Auditor-Treasurer Beth Van Hove said the number of individuals who voted in the 2012 election was quite good compared to the number of registered voters in the county.
Van Hove said there were 9,160 registered voters by 7 a.m. on Election Day, with another 1,548 individuals registering to vote on that day, for a total of 10,708 eligible voters. By the time the polls closed, 8,600 ballots were cast, for a voting rate of 80 percent. Comparing the number of ballots cast with the number of voting-age residents of Nobles County, however, shows a voting rate of 63 percent.
Because the U.S. Census only identifies the number of citizens in the voting-age population for counties, it is possible the number could include residents ineligible to vote based on citizenship status.
Van Hove said the first question asked of those wanting to register to vote is if they are a U.S. citizen.
Yet, Chu identified other issues such as voter outreach and education as possible reasons for low voter registration and turnout.
Nobles County ranked the second lowest from the state average in overall voter registration. If there is a failure to reach out to encourage voting or to educate the public on voting rights, that would impact the number of people who cast a ballot.
“Voter turnout in the U.S. — we have issues of engagement,” Chu said. “The voter’s desire to come out and be engaged (isn’t high). That’s a more complicated issue than election administration.”
Comparing the rate of registered voters purged from voting rolls, Chu said Nobles County ranked seventh poorest in the state. This “more complicated” analytical process looks at how counties handle voter list maintenance.
“Election officials have the authority to go through and do voter list maintenance,” Chu explained. “That is going through the voting rolls and trying to determine who may have passed away, who may have moved. ... We all want to have good, up-to-date voting rolls.
“It may be that the county was simply doing its job and if there’s a highly transient population in the county, that was influencing the numbers,” she added.
Chu said she heard from some counties that have college towns, and those population changes would impact voting rolls.
“We don’t know the area as well as people on the ground,” she said. “Hopefully this gives advocates another tool. Why are we so far from the mean?”
The Center for American Progress Action Fund’s opinion of Nobles County wasn’t all bad. Chu said the rate of absentee ballots rejected in the 2012 election in the county was “really low.”
Van Hove said there were 934 individuals who requested an absentee ballot for the 2012 presidential election, of which 898 ballots were processed, 23 were never returned and 13 were rejected. Of the rejected ballots, 10 were disqualified because they were not returned by the deadline, two failed to have a witness sign their absentee ballot and one had a ballot number and signature that did not match the county’s records.
Chu said the data released in the Center’s report is “just one part of the story of what is happening on the ground.” She said the goal of the report is to increase voter access for citizens.
“The report’s findings provide insights that can help officials, policymakers and advocates better understand voting administration practices that work,” stated a press release issued by the organization. “By comparing voter access and experience across Minnesota’s counties, officials can determine the best practices for ensuring that citizens have an equal opportunity to participate in the democratic process.”
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.