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Election officials: Hundreds of votes went uncounted in Senate District 11 primary

Michelle Lee watches election results with Brandon Shofner (left) and Benjamin Carollo during the Jan. 22 primary in Senate District 11 at the Third Base Bar in Carlton. Lee declined to comment on hundreds of uncounted mail-in ballots which arrived in the days after the closely fought election won by Stu Lourey. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

More than 400 mail-in ballots went uncounted in the special election primary in Senate District 11 earlier this month. The ballots were returned following the Jan. 22 primary and arrived too late to be counted.

Most of the late ballots came in Carlton County, where 250 ballots arrived Friday — days after the election, said Auditor Paul Gassert, who added that ballots continued to trickle in Monday with 12 more.

"If I'm a voter," Gassert said, "it's frustrating."

Stu Lourey defeated Michelle Lee, 1,932 to 1,699, in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor primary. Lee declined to comment on the volume of uncounted ballots. Lee outpointed Lourey in Carlton County, 1,161 to 896, but was roundly defeated in Pine County.

Lourey will join Republican Jason Rarick and Legal Marijuana Now candidate John Birrenbach in the special general election on Feb. 5.

"The truncated timeline for the special election in Senate District 11 is a challenge for election administrators and county auditors to get (mail-in) ballots out and get them back," said spokesman Ben Petok of the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office.

Former Gov. Mark Dayton ordered the special election on Jan. 3 to fill the seat vacated by Tony Lourey after his appointment to Gov. Tim Walz's cabinet that same day. State statute required a special election to be held within 35 days of the vacancy, Petok said.

"The residents in Senate District 11 need to have representation as soon as possible," Petok said, outlining the rationale of the law.

Senate District 11 serves Carlton and Pine counties as well as small parts of St. Louis and Kanabec counties. Only Carlton and Pine counties feature mail-ballot precincts in the district, totaling slightly more than 3,000 registered mail-in voters. Mail-in balloting has become a popular mechanism throughout the state for some of its rural-most areas.

In the case of the Senate District 11 special election, Carlton County, in particular, struggled to get out the primary ballots following the Gov. Dayton order. Supplies that had dwindled following the November midterms had to be replenished in short order, Gassert said. There was also no mail delivery on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which fell the day before the primary and slowed the return of ballots.

Regarding the special general election, many of the mail-in ballots were sent out last Friday, said Gassert and Pine County Auditor Kelly Schroeder. Carlton County mailed out ballots for eight of 15 precincts on Friday with the remainder going out Monday, Gassert said. A quarter of Pine County's 12 mail-in precinct ballots went out Friday and the remainder Monday, Schroeder said.

The auditors were hoping to avoid a repeat of the primary scenario, but could not make guarantees.

"We're a day ahead of time and we don't have the (holiday)," Gassert said.

Every election features mail-in ballots which arrive after the fact, the auditors said. But the compressed nature of the special election made the current situation more acutely disenfranchising. Gassert explained that the late-arriving ballots will remain sealed and uncounted by law. The ballots will be held for 22 months before being disposed of.

Under normal circumstances, ballots are mailed out weeks in advance of an election, rather than days.

Petok said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon is addressing the truncated timeline with legislators, working to extend the timeline for special elections in light of how long mail-in balloting can take.

"This is a good example of why a lengthier timeline may make sense," Petok said. "It would certainly make it easier from an administrative perspective and quite frankly would give us a more real opportunity that more of those votes would get sent in and recorded."

In Pine County, 257 mail-in ballots were received in time to be counted, and 43 had come back through Friday, following the election. Pine County has 752 registered voters in mail-in precincts.

In Carlton County, roughly 350 mail-in ballots were counted and Gassert predicted as many as 400 would ultimately arrive late. Carlton County features roughly 2,300 voters in mail-in precincts.

One positive takeaway, Gassert said, is that "folks still get voting history credit even if the ballot wasn't counted."

A registered voter is purged from state rolls if they go four years without voting.