ST. PAUL — As another side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 election will need to operate a little bit differently than previous elections, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon told The Globe.
"The safest thing is to treat the upcoming election as a public health issue," Simon said in a Tuesday interview. "We don't want to be like Georgia a week ago, and we don't want to be like Wisconsin a couple months ago."
Georgia's June 9 primary faced heavy criticism after polling place reductions, social distancing measures and technical malfunctions created long lines for voters. The April 7 primary in Wisconsin resulted in litigation on the grounds that the state did not take adequate precautions to protect voters from the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Minnesota is using a number of strategies to avoid both of those outcomes, Simon explained. The state has about 3,000 regular polling places and expects about 3 million Minnesotans to vote this year — an average of roughly 1,000 people per polling place. That number is too high, Simon said, so his office is working to reduce it by creating additional polling places.
In order for this to work, Simon makes two requests of Minnesota voters: 1) consider voting at home, and 2) consider serving as an election judge.
Vote from home
Voting from home via mail has been used by Minnesotans for decades, from veterans to college students to voters who prefer not to travel to their polling place, Simon said. This year, though, voting from home is more than just a personal convenience — "It's a public service," Simon said.
The more Minnesotans who vote from home, the smaller the crowd will be at polling places on Election Day, he explained. In this way, voting from home creates a safer environment both for in-person voters and for election judges.
People wanting to vote from home may visit mnvotes.org. It takes about three minutes to request an absentee ballot. Because it takes some time for election officials to confirm voter information, send ballots, wait for ballots to be returned and tally votes, it is advised that voters request an absentee ballot as soon as possible, especially those who intend to vote in the Aug. 11 primary.
When the president voices objections to voting by mail, Minnesota's system is not what he means, Simon said. What Trump opposes, according to Simon, is the idea of everyone automatically being sent a mail-in ballot without having a choice. Minnesota allows voters to choose how to vote, but this year, the state strongly encourages voters to vote by mail if possible.
Simon is also moving ahead with a plan to waive witness requirements for absentee ballots in the state’s Aug. 11 primary, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported this week. Minnesota usually requires a witness (a registered voter or notary public) signature for a mailed-in absentee ballot. Ballots postmarked by Primary Election Day will also be accepted up to two days after Primary Election Day.
Simon's action is coming after the filings of lawsuits in state and federal court, respectively. Republican lawmakers have also been critical of Simon, accusing him of circumventing the Legislature’s authority.
With some voters unable to vote from home or strongly preferring to vote in person on Election Day, Simon explained some of the added safety measures the state is taking to reduce the risk of spreading disease while voting in person.
"We are doing everything we can to make the polling place safe," he said. Masks, hand sanitizer and wipes will be provided, and the voting procedure will limit contact, even including rules about using pens.
The Constitution prohibits the state from requiring people to wear a mask in order to vote, but masks will be strongly encouraged and made available to those who vote in person, Simon added.
Simon urges Minnesotans to consider becoming election judges. The state needs about 30,000 people to monitor the voting process on Election Day.
Typically election judges are senior citizens, but people ages 65 and older are at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19, so younger election judges are needed. The only requirements are that an election judge must be eligible to vote in Minnesota and must be able to read, write and speak English. Students 16 and 17 years old are also able to serve as election judge trainees.
Election judging is a paid position. It requires two hours of training in advance and an all-day commitment on Election Day. Employers are required by law to give election judges the day off without a reduction in pay.
To apply, contact the county election official. Those in The Globe's coverage area are as follows:
- Cottonwood County: Donna Torkelson, (507) 831-1342
- Jackson County: Kevin Nordquist, (507) 847-2763
- Murray County: Heidi Winter, (507) 836-1152
- Nobles County: Joyce Jacobs, (507) 295-5258 or email@example.com
- Pipestone County: Tyler Reisch, (507) 825-1140
- Rock County: Ashley Kurtz, (507) 283-5060