Carlton County election turnout grows

In elections across the region, more people voted — in terms of percentage and raw numbers — compared to the 2016 election.

Jon Ahlgren (front) and Joe Schmitz vote at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Cloquet on Tuesday, Nov. 3. Over 200 voters cast their ballot at this precinct before 9:30 a.m. (File / Pine Journal)

Cloquet’s City Council elections weren’t as contentious as in 2018, when five seats — including the mayor’s office — were all contested.

In 2020, only one of three races was contested, that of the Ward 5 seat between Elizabeth “Lyz” Jaakola and Dennis Painter.

Jaakola won more than 49% of the primary vote in August, but Painter worked hard to turn out the vote to make the general election more competitive.

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Dennis Painter


“I was having dinner with a friend on election night, and I told him if I got to 600 votes, I had a chance,” Painter said.

Painter, a first-time candidate, ended up winning 603 votes total, but Jaakola won the seat with nearly 55% of the vote. Jaakola’s 725 votes, along with a handful of write-ins, brought the number cast to 1,331 in the Ward 5 race — an 11.6% increase over the total in 2016, the last time there was a race in Ward 5.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted any sort of traditional, door-to-door campaign, Painter said, and he credited Jaakola with getting new voters to the polls this fall — a good thing for the city.

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Elizabeth "Lyz" Jaakola

“I did avoid the door-knocking and traditional campaigning that I probably would have done, had it not been for COVID,” Painter said. “I think she was able to balance campaigning during COVID and get it better than me and I think that's an experience thing, being this is my first time.”

Both candidates used social media and phone calls to campaign, but Jaakola also tried to take advantage of impromptu opportunities to campaign as well.

“The traditional door-knocking just didn't really happen,” Jaakola said. “But what we did is we cruised neighborhoods and tried to catch people when they were outside — it was a little unconventional. I got to talk to some people when they were cleaning up their yards, getting ready for fall, maybe when they weren't ready or expecting a little political chat, but everybody was really gracious.”


Turnout was up all around the county, particularly in contested races. In Wrenshall, current Mayor Donna Mae Weiderman faced a rematch against former Mayor Gary Butala. The two faced off in 2018 when Weiderman won election. A total of 239 votes were cast in that race, compared with 269 this year, a 12.5% increase in participation.

What’s more, nearly 90% of registered voters in Wrenshall cast a ballot in 2020, up from 85% in 2018.

Similarly in Moose Lake’s contested City Council election that pitted the same three candidates from a race four years ago, the two winning candidates — incumbents Kristin Heaton Huso and Greg Sarvela — each saw an approximately 14% increase in the number of votes they received. James Michalski picked up 23 more votes than the 332 he received in 2016, an increase of approximately 7% in the losing effort.

Carlton County voter turnout.jpg

Carlton County Auditor Kathy Kortuem said nearly 92% of Carlton County’s 22,253 registered voters cast a ballot in 2020. Kortuem’s office will count ballots received until Thursday, Nov. 12, but the ballots must be postmarked by Election Day. So far, there have only been about a dozen ballots to arrive since Nov. 3, according to Kortuem. In 2016, just under 90% of registered voters cast a ballot in Carlton County.

Even more notable, 10,982 ballots were cast early in 2020, 53.4% of the total votes in the county. In 2016, 4,204 people voted early in-person or by absentee or mail ballot. Kortuem said tallying the results was a process, but her office did well meeting the challenge.

“I was very pleased with how straightforward and calm things actually were,” Kortuem said. “I know it took us time, but the processes we put in place were very good and they made it through and we’ve come up against basically nothing that had to be corrected after the fact.”

Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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