County auditor addresses voting concerns for upcoming election
With heightened concerns about voting security as political parties have arguably never been more polarized, Mille Lacs County Auditor Eric Bartusch weighed in on issues surrounding the upcoming election and addressed voting during a pandemic.
Early absentee voting begins on Friday, Sept. 18 (46 days up until the election) with mail-in absentee voting and in-person absentee voting. See “Ways to vote” section for more information.
One concern circulating on social media posts is why voters are getting so many unsolicited “ballots” in the mail. Bartusch clarified that, unless they sent in an application for one, residents are likely not getting ballots in the mail but are getting unsolicited applications for ballots.
He explained that the applications are coming from voting groups who requested an application in the person’s name and are making an organized effort to encourage voting by mail. He clarified concerns that people may be getting a number of ballots after submitting all the applications they receive in the mail. “Even if a voter submitted multiple absentee ballot applications to the Secretary of State or the County, they would only get one ballot in return,” said Bartusch.
“I understand, from a public perspective, that it is concerning when they see multiple applications,” said Bartusch, “but the control happens when you return something – we only accept one application per voter and one ballot per voter.”
Bartusch said that in a non-COVID year, they would do all of the counting of absentee ballots on the day of the election. But because of the amount of mail-in ballots the county auditor’s department received in the primary and the time it took to count them, the department will be counting the ballots earlier.
The voting process is very stringent, he said. “When we receive an absentee ballot, we review the information on the signature envelope and compare it to our records to make sure the voter information matches, and the envelope remains sealed until it is ready to be counted,” said Bartusch. “On the morning of election day (in a typical year), we open the envelopes and insert the ballots into a tabulator, similar to one found at the precincts. We carefully ensure that the number of ballots received matches the number of ballots that are scanned through the tabulator. All applications and ballots received are stored in a vault each night.”
What about cats, dogs and dead people?
Bartusch was asked about the process to make sure each voter is legitimate, being actually alive, not an animal or a felon. He said that a registered voter who requests a ballot presents an I.D. and signs a form. “We check it against the Statewide Voter Registration System,” said Bartusch. “When we send out the absentee ballot application, you have to provide the last four digits of your social security number or driver’s license, and we have to match it. As far as felons or the deceased, voter maintenance is a year round process. If someone is convicted of a felony or passes away, we are notified so that we can keep voter records up to date. It’s a very robust system.”
He added that when someone requests an absentee ballot, they may find that their registration was updated through the DMV or postal system. “Our voting system is fed by those organizations. It tracks voters better than people might realize,” said Bartusch.
Party affiliation on the outside of mail-in envelopes?
Another issue brought to Bartusch’s attention was whether or not your party affiliation is identified on the outside of mail-in envelopes. Some voters have been concerned about a carrier of their mail-in ballot seeing their political affiliation and somehow disposing of their vote.
During the general election, there will be no indication of a person’s political affiliation on a mail-in or absentee ballot, says Bartusch. He said there is no way to tie a vote to a voter. “There is nothing on the signature envelope that requires a party selection,” said Bartusch. “From a results standpoint, there is no way for even me to know how someone voted. You only know that they voted.”
Ways to vote
There are three ways people can vote: by mail, in-person early voting and in-person voting on the day of election.
When voting by mail, a registered voter requests an absentee ballot by calling their county of residence (in Mille Lacs County the number is 320-983-8210) or by visiting the Secretary of State’s website at mnvotes.org and requesting a ballot. Bartusch said the voter would complete the application, the ballot would be mailed out and then returned to the county auditor.
“That process can be tracked online through the Secretary of State’s website tracking tool,” he added. “It tracks it through the statewide registration system and shows that we received the ballot.” If people have concerns that a ballot was never received, he said, they can call the auditor’s office and they can look into it. “If it (the ballot) hasn’t showed up as received through the tracking tool, it may still be with us and just hasn’t gone through the ballot board yet. If a ballot gets lost and we haven’t received it, we can cancel that ballot and send another one.”
Bartusch said he fully expects to see a “very, very busy absentee period.” As of Sept. 10, the auditor’s department had 1,290 absentee ballot applications and was still processing ones received, according to Bartusch. In comparison during the 2016 general election, there were a total of 2,021 absentee ballots accepted, 452 of which were from the five mail-in precincts. So Bartusch estimates that 1,569 were true absentee/early voters.
If mailing in your vote, Bartusch said to make sure you request at least a couple weeks before the election, depending on where you are, as the ballots come straight from the auditor’s office in Milaca. He noted a recent development passed by the Minnesota legislature that says a mail-in ballot can now be postmarked on or before election day, Nov. 3, and received to the auditor’s office by Nov. 10. Canvassing of the election will be held on Nov. 12 and 13. He said preliminary results will be released prior to the canvassing date as usual.
When voting early in-person, people can come to the Mille Lacs County Auditor’s department located in the Mille Lacs County Historic Courthouse in Milaca from Sept. 18 until the day before the election and fill out a ballot in person. “They have to fill it out right there; they can’t take it with them,” said Bartusch. “If they want a ballot at home, they have to get it via mail.” The county auditor’s office is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with the addition of Saturday, Oct. 31 (Halloween) from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. On the day before the election on Nov. 2, the auditor’s office will be open until 5 p.m. for early voting.
If a voter is not registered to vote while voting early absentee, they can do so at the courthouse by showing proof of residence at the courthouse.
The third way to vote is in-person on election day, Nov. 3, 2020. Bartusch noted that none of the precincts have gone to strictly mail-in voting in light of the pandemic and that the usual 20 precincts in the county will be staffed and open on election day. The five mail-ballot precincts will remain mail-ballot.
Another option, listed on the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website, is having an “agent” pick up a ballot. There are limitations to this option, however, that can be found at https://www.sos.state.mn.us/elections-voting/other-ways-to-vote/vote-early-in-person/.
Voting during a pandemic
Bartusch said that the Secretary of State has been encouraging absentee balloting from a pandemic standpoint to minimize interaction between other voters and polling workers. “Our precincts are doing everything in their power to create as much safety as they can to have in-person voting,” he noted.
Those initiatives include but are not limited to the use of hand sanitizer, surface cleaning, plexiglass barriers, social distancing efforts, and posting mask mandate signs.
Isle City Clerk Jamie Hubbell said they are taking the same measures as the county. “We encourage everyone to come in and feel safe that we have taken all precautions possible,” said Hubbell. “We have curbside voting for those who do not want to enter the building. And there is always the option for absentee ballot voting prior to election day. They can request an absentee ballot application either in person at city hall or via email. It must be submitted two weeks prior to the general election.”
Wahkon City Clerk Karrie Roeschlein said that in preparation for a much larger crowd for the general election, Wahkon has a different plan for entering and exiting the poll in light of the pandemic. She noted that if someone can’t walk the distance back to their vehicle, they will accommodate them and that curbside voting is available as well.
“I noticed that some citizens that have voted here for many elections were nervous during the primary due to COVID-19. We hope they saw how dedicated our election judges were in providing the required measures, as everyone’s safety is very important,” said Roeschlein. “Be assured, we will again take your safety seriously in order for you to feel as comfortable as possible to vote in the upcoming general election.”
Bartusch noted the one benefit to voting in person is if something is mismarked on a ballot, the person working at the polling location can look at it and cancel it and redo the voting.