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Star Tribune: Minnesota's top elections official says expanded early voting a success

November 8, 2016


“In the days leading up to the election, Simon has been crisscrossing the state, visiting early voting centers and sitting down with elections officials to ask how things are running.”

Star Tribune: Minnesota's top elections official says expanded early voting a success
By Erin Golden, 11/8/16

At the lone early voting site in St. Paul on the day before Election Day, the line stretched around the building and parking spots were scarce — even for the state’s top election official.

On a visit to check in with Ramsey County elections workers, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon saw what looked to be the only parking spot in sight, began to pull in, but abruptly stopped and backed out. The spot had a sign — “VOTER PARKING ONLY” — and Simon didn’t want to take it away from a voter, even though he was running an hour behind on his jam-packed election eve schedule.

Tuesday will be Simon’s first general election as secretary of state, and it’s a big one for reasons far beyond the battle at the top of the ticket. It is the state’s first presidential election where people can vote early without an excuse, and they’ve turned out in force. By Monday morning, 568,196 Minnesotans had already voted, crushing previous records. It is also an election where voters, prompted in part by comments from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and hacking of Democratic Party computers, are more skeptical of the way elections are run. And for Simon, it is an opportunity to see election overhauls he’s championed since his days in the Legislature, such as expanded early voting, become a reality.

“To me, the election is the Super Bowl and the World Series, combined,” he said.

In the days leading up to the election, Simon has been crisscrossing the state, visiting early voting centers and sitting down with elections officials to ask how things are running.

He saved the state’s largest two cities for Monday, a day when his visits to polling places, elections offices and call centers were interspersed with interviews for the radio and TV news.

In Minneapolis, where 52,783 voters had already cast their ballots — amounting to more than 21 percent of registered voters — Simon sat down with City Clerk Casey Carl. He pulled out a pen and a three-ring binder and quizzed Carl about the city’s four early voting operations and about what the turnout might mean for Election Day voter registrations.

“One of the things I’m going to be looking for tomorrow is to see that same day, Election Day registration number,” he said, “and whether no-excuses absentee voting has an effect on that.”

Carl told Simon that early voting numbers were expected to surge throughout the day, and that the busiest voting site, in south Minneapolis, was likely to see wait times of two hours. For Minneapolis’ first time offering early voting at sites outside of City Hall, Carl said officials weren’t sure to expect. They picked four locations around the city, put out the word through news releases, social media and outreach workers who showed up at neighborhood events, and got a larger-than-expected response.

“People have asked us, why don’t you have more, why don’t you have more early vote centers?” Carl said.

A block away from City Hall, where the line of voters outside the downtown early voting center was growing, Simon stopped in to observe the voting in action. Carl pointed out the machine that counts ballots right away after voters slide them in — a step added to Minneapolis voting sites a week before the election — and a colorful wall near the exit, meant to serve as a backdrop for people who want to take selfies with their “I Voted” stickers. (Regular polling places on Tuesday won’t have the selfie wall, he said.)

In Ramsey County

At the St. Paul early voting center on West Plato Boulevard, Simon found Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky, whose desk is surrounded by voter registries and stacks of election equipment used to help voters with disabilities. Simon pulled out his binder and started on his list of questions: How many early voting sites could he use in St. Paul? How many voters had opted to void their ballots and change their votes before the Nov. 1 deadline to do so? How are the wait times for voters?

Mansky told Simon that the high early turnout makes a case for more voting centers throughout the city. He said very few voters had elected to change their votes, as is allowed by state law. And by late morning, with the line outside growing, Mansky said it looked like people would wait about 50 minutes to cast their ballots, and he said most people seemed not to mind the wait. He noted that people had turned out on Sunday morning when the voting center opened, and tolerated an even longer wait.

“I will tell you this: Everybody out here is happy,” Mansky said. “They’re not happy they’re standing in line. They’re happy that you gave them the opportunity to stand in line.”

Mansky showed Simon around another room, where file boxes full of ballots were stacked against the walls. About two dozen election workers were gathered around tables where machines, screeching like dot matrix printers, opened sealed ballots to be counted. On a whiteboard was a reminder of their goal: 1,250 ballots per four-person team, per hour. Simon was impressed.

In the last weeks of early voting, some groups that had earlier shown less interest in the new option looked to be getting more interested. A Star Tribune analysis of voting data released by Simon’s office on Monday showed that people under 45 made up 29 percent of absentee voters in the last two weeks. Before that, younger voters accounted for just 18 percent of the total.

“It’s great to see [early voting] seeming to work well,” Simon said. “Obviously people are literally voting with their feet. It’s a cliché, but it’s true, and they’re deciding this is the way they want to vote.”

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