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Rural ballot controversy surfaces in special election

Some mail-in ballots in the Senate District 11 special election process risk going uncounted, beginning with Tuesday's DFL primary, and affected voters are being encouraged to cast their ballots in-person.

"We don't have our ballots yet," said Rory Butkiewicz, of Split Rock Township, west of Moose Lake. "I still don't know who I'm going to vote for, but I should have the chance to vote without having to drive 80 miles (round-trip) to Carlton to do it."

Carlton County mailed out ballots Monday and Tuesday, Auditor Paul Gassert said. Some have already been returned, but Gassert admitted others will be better off voting at the courthouse.

"I've got mail-in ballots back from the Wright area, Barnum, Holyoke, Wrenshall," Gassert said. "But I've been getting some phone calls from a couple of different precincts that don't have their ballots yet."

A special election was ordered by former Gov. Mark Dayton earlier this month, after Tony Lourey vacated the Senate District 11 seat to join the new cabinet of Gov. Tim Walz. As part of the election process, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party primary on Tuesday will feature a run-off between Michelle Lee and Stu Lourey. State Rep. Jason Rarick is the GOP-endorsed candidate in the Feb. 5 general election.

The compressed nature of the special election is effectively "cramming four months of work into four weeks," Gassert said.

There are 15 mail-in precincts in Carlton County, featuring roughly 2,300 registered voters. Through Friday, Gassert said Carlton County had received a paltry 26 mail-in ballots so far.

"We're going to be less than 10 percent turnout," Gassert said. "The cost per voter is going to be expensive."

The News Tribune confirmed there are no mail-ballots precincts in eastern Kanabec and southern St. Louis County — two other areas served by the seat. All of Pine and Carlton counties are served by the senate seat.

Pine County Auditor Kelly Schroeder explained there are 12 mail-in precincts with 752 registered voters in her county. She said there have been no complaints about ballot returns, and already has received 150 ballots through Friday.

“We went like gangbusters to get them mailed,” she said of ballots mailed on Jan. 11 — two postal days before Carlton County mailed out its ballots. Gassert acknowledged that election supply shortages led, in part, to the slower turnaround in Carlton County.

“We’ve had a little trouble with snowbirds,” Schroeder said, explaining that some folks who flee for warmer climates in winter were calling for ballots this week with no conceivable way to accommodate their requests and have ballots from, say, Arizona, returned in time.  

For areas such as Split Rock Township, ballots received by Friday or later are unlikely to reach the county auditor's office by Tuesday — especially given Monday's holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"All our mail goes to the Twin Cities now (for sorting)," Butkiewicz said. "If I send a letter to the neighbor I can see across my field half-a-mile away, it would take five days."

Butkiewicz got a call from his father early Friday, wondering where the ballots were. It sent him searching for answers. Butkiewicz said he understands why some of the rural-most parts of the state went to mail-only precincts, but he doesn't like it — having to mail-in his ballot during the peak of campaigning.

"We're all farmland, all farmers out this way," Butkiewicz said. "We're almost at a disadvantage already. I try to take in everything that's going on before I vote."

An early voting period at the Carlton County Courthouse in Carlton will take place Saturday and even on the Monday holiday, Gassert said — from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday. Polls on the day of Tuesday's primary are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The Feb. 5 general election likely will feature the same cramped timeline — with local and state canvassing boards certifying primary results by late next week, and Feb. 5 ballots being printed and mailed by Jan. 28 — nine days before the election.

Rural voters in mail-in precincts have the option to vote in person, but must travel to the courthouse to do so.

Butkiewicz said he didn't blame the county for the issue, but he worried that the state will one day further marginalize rural-most voters.

"The right to vote is there, but I don't want to have to drive to the Twin Cities to vote," he said.

This time, he'll likely pile into a truck with his father and other family members on Saturday to make the drive to vote in Carlton.

But he worried elderly folks and others might not be so fortunate to be able to move around in what figure to be frigid temperatures leading up to the primary.

"It's a pretty big deal," he said. "You're ixnaying a whole group of people, I would say."