What if I told you there are more than four hundred legally cast ballots stored in a box in a Minnesota county auditor’s office that will never be counted in a recent primary election that was won by just 233 votes? Would it bother you to know more than a thousand additional ballots were dropped in the trash by registered voters who couldn’t return them in time to be counted?
Chances are you haven’t heard that story. But I bet you’ve read or heard about the recent ballot-fraud scandal where hundreds of illegally cast ballots were counted in North Carolina. That state’s election board held hearings and soon North Carolinians will have a new election. The same cannot be said for the case of the uncounted legal ballots in Minnesota’s recent primary election for Senate Disrict 11 on January 22nd, 2019. The Minnesota primary did not involve illegally collected mail-in absentee ballots or forged signatures in support of votes that were counted. The problem here, was a lot more complicated.
It involved an antiquated state statute and the impacts of cost cutting in the United States mail system.This perfect storm of voter disenfranchisement developed after State Senator, Tony Lourey was appointment to the administration of Governor-Elect Tim Walz on Thursday, January 3. Per state statute; “the governor shall issue within five days after the vacancy occurs a writ calling for a special election. ”
As one of his last official acts in office Governor, Mark Dayton wasted no time in issuing the writ, setting up a narrow 32 day window for an election cycle that would include a DFL endorsing convention, a primary election, and a special election to fill the senate vacancy. Filing for the vacated seat opened on January 4th the day after Lourey’s appointment. SD 11 DFL delegates gathered on a sub-zero winter morning on January 19th in Barnum to hold a convention to endorse a candidate three days ahead of the January 22nd primary election. The winner of the primary would advance to face the Republican candidate in the special election February 5th.
On paper it should have worked, with plenty of time to get the word out to primary voters and ensure that every vote was counted. In reality this governmental rush to insure residents in SD 11 representation in St. Paul resulted in hundreds, if not thousands of disenfranchised voters.
In this rush to insure a quick transition;--Apparently no one on the state level took into account the push to move rural communities away from polling places in favor of less expensive mail-in balloting. There are 27 mail-in precincts in Senate District 11. --No one considered the time frame it now takes to post and deliver mail in Northern Minnesota. In 2015 the USPS closed its mail sorting operations in Duluth extending by up to a week the time it takes to deliver first class mail between our rural areas, towns, and cities. --No one considered the potential impact of scheduling a primary election one day after a federal holiday which further delayed the delivery of ballots to the auditor’s office. --And no one took steps to respond when the alarm was raised leading up to the primary election.
This ‘blink and you’ll miss it election’ caused enormous pressure on auditors in Pine, Kanabec, St. Louis and Carlton Counties charged with carrying out special elections. Perhaps none more so than the Carlton County Auditor who oversees the election process for more than a dozen mail-in precincts. Ballots are normally sent out to voters one month before an election. But is this case ballots left the auditor’s office less than nine days before the January 22nd primary.
According to the auditor a mail service picked up the ballots at four p.m. on January 14th and 15th. The Ballots were then metered and mailed to voters via the USPS.
At the very least it takes a minimum of three days for the USPS to deliver ballots to the votersand another three days for voters to return their completed ballots by mail. A 5 to 8 day delivery time frame, one way, was also noted. Some would-be voters expressed their dismay during Sunday worship services on January 20th they had not yet received their ballots.
There was no mail delivery on MLK Day, a federal holiday, just one day before the primary, further delaying ballots that were cast.This was not the only barrier in ballot delivery. A snow storm also complicated travel from the rural parts of the county forcing some voters to drive long distances in treacherous conditions to deliver their mail-in ballots to their county auditor’s office, others simply did not vote.
The bottom line?In Carlton County 2,300 Mail-in primary ballots were sent out to voters.Just 350 of those ballots were return and counted on primary election day. More than 400 ballots were returned by mail after primary day and now sit in a box, uncounted.
The fraud perpetrated against North Carolinians was rectified by the state elections board and a new election was ordered.
Minnesota’s disenfranchised primary voters in SD 11--won’t get a do-over. But it is possible bills just introduced in St. Paul may ensure rural voters will have their votes counted in future special elections and primaries. HF 1628 and its companion bill, SF 1976 expands the process of a special election primary by one week. It also expands the special election cycle by two weeks after the issuance of a writ by the governor calling for a special election.
Given the current transition from brick and mortar polling places to mail-in precincts and longer delivery times experienced in our rural areas it is hoped the language being proposed to update statues will prevent the future disenfranchisement of voters in a state which prides itself in free and open elections.
Note: Michelle Lee was the DFL endorsed candidate in the January 22, 2019 Primary for MN SD 11. Stu Lourey, the son of former state Senator Tony Lourey won the primary by 233 votes.
Lourey was defeated in the March 5th Special election by Republican, Jason Rarick who now serves in the Minnesota Senate. Rarick gave up his seat in the Minnesota House to run for the senate. A special election has been called to fill his vacant HD 11B seat.