Absentee voting is skyrocketing in St. Louis County, which has received more than 39,100 applications for absentee ballots through Friday morning; 407 were spoiled ballots.
“It’s a huge number — more than double what we would normally do in a general election cycle,” Phil Chapman, director of elections, said. “We’re still getting a couple hundred per day right now of people applying for absentee balloting. We’re trying to get things out in a timely manner.”
In the 2016 general election — a presidential election like the upcoming one — the county processed 16,302 absentee ballots from among 123,699 registered voters.
Chapman explained spoiled ballots: "Spoiled ballots aren't rejected by any means. What that is, is somebody maybe applied online to get their absentee ballot mailed to them, but instead of voting by mail they came in and voted in person, so we have to spoil the ballot we sent out."
Voter angst about not having received their ballots also spiked this week following the start of early and absentee voting on Sept. 18.
In Esko, Rick Kucinski, 68, planned to vote absentee for the first time. He wrote the News Tribune concerned he had yet to see his ballot come through the mail.
“They’ve advertised it so much,” Kucinski said. “I already know who I’m going to vote for, and I wanted to get it done and out of my mind. It’s been a stressful period, and absentee just seemed more convenient.”
As of Thursday, Carlton County, where Kucinski resides, had received 4,343 absentee applications. That's in addition to 3,687 ballots to mail-only precincts, of which four are new and include 1,500 voters. The office was already busy, acting auditor/treasurer Kathy Kortuem said, but the appeal of absentee ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic is making the process to keep up even more daunting.
She's asking for patience, saying mail-only ballots went out Friday, while the absentee ballots are scheduled to go out next week.
"When people who requested an absentee ballot come to vote in person at the courthouse, there's a whole lot more work involved in that scenario," Kortuem said. "It would help us a lot if people would be patient with us and give it until Oct. 8 to get their ballot. They'll still have a month and we do have a drop box."
The drop box is located inside the county courthouse in Carlton.
Kucinski and others expected ballot arrival would have coincided with the start of the voting period — 45 days out from the Nov. 3 general election.
“I’m going to give it a couple more days,” he said. “We’re thinking about going to the courthouse to vote.”
Chapman said more than 34,000 ballots have been mailed so far to Duluth and St. Louis County voters.
“We’re working diligently to get them out,” he said.
In St. Louis County, the 17 largest cities process their own applications and mail out the ballots. The county handles everyone else, including 6,500 ballots in mail-ballot precincts. Those are scheduled to go out at the end of this week or early next, Chapman said.
In Hermantown, the city posted a Facebook message calling for voters to be patient.
“Hold tight,” the post said. “(I)t’s almost certainly on the way.”
The city urged voters not to apply for another ballot if they’ve done so already.
Ballot arrival is not the only thing confusing some voters, Chapman said. There’s also mail arriving from non-profit organizations which includes absentee ballot applications.
“We probably have the same amount of calls with people getting confused as with people checking on their absentee ballots,” he said. “There’s a lot of confusion from people wondering, ‘Why am I getting these mailers?’”
The mailers tend to come multiple times over the course of several weeks and appear to be well-intentioned — trying to make it easier to vote and increase the number of voters. The confusion arises when people wonder why they’re receiving the mailers after they’ve already applied for their absentee ballot, Chapman explained. There's no need to apply more than once.
He urged voters to follow their ballots using the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office website, where a birth date and Minnesota ID or driver’s license number can be used to track absentee ballots. The site informs users when their ballot went out in the mail, and also confirms when it’s been received and counted.
Absentee ballot applications are entered into a statewide voter registration system, which kicks the applications into a queue that informs jurisdictions when a ballot needs to be sent out.
“Once they’re in the queue, we work to get them out,” Chapman said. “Some people applied two months ago, but we couldn’t process anything until the opening of absentee balloting.”
This story was updated at 10:28 a.m. and 11:34 a.m. Sept. 25, and again at 10:25 a.m. Sept. 26, to include updated St. Louis County figures and Carlton County's response as well as an explanation of spoiled ballots. It was originally posted at 3 p.m. Sept. 24.