Flood of absentee ballots pour into Clay County office

Clay County auditor Lori Johnson says her office has received almost 11,000 requests to date for absentee ballots. Many will be dropped off in the secure box in the courthouse lobby. (Photo/Nancy Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

A record number of Clay County residents have already requested absentee voting ballots from the Clay County Auditor’s Office.
“Pretty much everybody here is working on the election,” reports Clay County Auditor Lori Johnson of her staff of 16, “and we’ve added seven additional part-timers to help us handle it.” Some 11,000 requests had been received as of this writing, with many more expected. The deadline for requesting applications online, in person or by mail is Nov. 2.
Clay County’s record number of distance votes was set last year, when 2,756 absentee ballots were distributed. “It has been creeping up year by year, especially since Minnesota eliminated the need to state a reason for requesting to vote absentee in 2016,” Lori explains. “But we know this year is easily going to set a record.” Concern about COVID-19 exposure when voting in person has spurred many of the requests. “Once people try this out and experience the convenience,” she adds, “I think we’ll see a lot more of it in the future.”
Some Clay County residents need not request mail-in ballots. They are mailed automatically to those who live in 18 of the county’s 30 townships or in Comstock, Hitterdal and Georgetown – all locations where staffing an in-person polling place is not feasible due to limited population.
For those in the rest of the county, a formal request is required to obtain a ballot to vote absentee. Because the county didn’t receive its printed ballots until Sept. 18, filling the backlog early requests ran a few days behind. That delay caused telephones to ring off the hook with voters alarmed that their requests had been overlooked. “Our phones rang constantly with people asking ‘where’s my ballot?’ We had to get 7,000 ballots in the mail right away, and we did our best,” the auditor says. “We’re pretty much caught up now, so people who request them from now on should be getting them pretty quick.”
To check the status of a ballot request, go to the Secretary of State’s website, www.sos.state.mn.us/elections-voting/ and click “other ways to vote.” Those who have filed can check the status of their response by entering their name and the personal number they used for their request. Voters can also request absentee ballots on the same page.
If you prefer to do your business in person, you can come directly to the Clay County Courthouse. The auditor has set up a service window in the basement area that formerly housed the Department of Motor Vehicles. In one stop, residents can file their request, receive a ballot, complete their voting and turn it in, either at the window or in the ballot box upstairs in the courthouse lobby.
If you’ve gotten your ballot by mail, you have two choices in making sure they are counted. They can mail them normally; the ballot return envelope is pre-printed with 70 cents’ worth of postage.
Or you can drop your ballot in person at the courthouse. A big grey mailbox next to the front door stands ready to collect it.
The auditor’s office is already bustling as workers validate the sealed ballots that have been returned, comparing them with requests. They match the identifying number on each outer envelope with what was listed on the request – either a Minnesota driver’s license or the last four digits of a Social Security number – with what appears on the envelope. Then they are put aside for the time being.
That would have out a fraudulent vote in a much-publicized error several weeks ago, when an Iowa householder reported receiving a Clay County ballot that had been delivered by mistake by the Post Office: “They would have to have had the Social Security or driver’s license number for it to be counted, and of course they did not.”
Next Tuesday, two weeks before the election, they will begin opening the envelopes and counting the votes. Ballots will be run through the same voting machines that are used at polling places on Nov. 3.
Absentee ballots can be dropped off at the courthouse until the polls close on Election Day. If mailed, they must be postmarked by or on Nov. 3. Those postmarked ballots have seven more days to be delivered to the auditor’s office.
Lori, who has been the county auditor since 1997, is very confident of the reliability of the absentee voting system. “Every ballot goes out with a sticker and bar code. They can’t be filled out by hand,” she notes. “On the day of the election, poll workers receive voting books in which those voters’ listing are marked ‘AB,’ for absentee ballot. We call them to update those that we receive after the books are printed. No one can vote twice. We’re sure of that.”
Of purported risks with mail-in ballots, she says, “We have had zero problems, zero fraud – zero. We have never had an issue with any mail-in ballot.”
Nor has the county experienced much of any trouble with in-person votes during Lori’s tenure. In 2016 two incidents came up – one an elderly woman with dementia who tried to vote twice, the other with a convicted felon who was ineligible to vote. He was prosecuted. “Felons have to be off paper to vote,” she explains. That means they must have completed all aspects of their sentence, including parole or probation and payment of any outstanding fines related to the case. (Those convicted of misdemeanors have no such limitations.)
“Last year we had someone who tried to vote twice. He went to the polls in two different townships attempting to vote,” she adds. He, too, was prosecuted for voter fraud.
For those still planning to vote by mail, the auditor has some simple, yet powerful, advice.
“Request your ballot now online, by mail or by coming here in person,” she recommends. “Read all the instructions. Fill it out completely, seal it in the envelopes that come along with it, and mail or drop it off right away.”
And as for the question so many potential absentee voters seem to ask: When your mail-in ballot arrives in your mailbox, there will indeed be a red “I Voted” sticker tucked inside.

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