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Some things to know about Minnesota’s atypical election

MINNEAPOLIS — After enduring months of bitter and polarizing political campaigning, Minnesotans eager for the finish line with next month’s election may have to wait just a few days more.

The coronavirus pandemic that has upended every corner of American life this year may mean delays in election results, too. Minnesotans are voting absentee in record numbers this year — more than 1.6 million had requested ballots through Friday — and a court has approved the counting of properly postmarked ballots for up to a week after Election Day.

That means winners in some races may not be be declared for days.

The unusual circumstances of this year’s election, along with frequent questions raised by President Donald Trump about voter fraud, have state election officials working overtime to assure the public that the state’s voting system can be trusted.

“When citizens see, on election night, that we don’t have 100% of the results in, it is literally by design,” Secretary of State Steve Simon told reporters recently. “It’s not evidence that anyone is hiding or concealing or rigging or stealing. It’s evidence of the actual plan.”

Here are some things to know about this year’s election:

WAYS TO VOTE

As always, Minnesota voters can cast a ballot at their polling place before 8 p.m. on Election Day, which is Nov. 3. But because of COVID-19 concerns, Simon and other elections officials have encouraged more Minnesotans to vote early in person at designated polling sites or request an absentee ballot or vote by mail. Absentee ballots may also be dropped off early at designated locations. Early voting started Sept. 18.

COUNTING THE VOTE

When Minnesota’s polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day, elections officials will begin tabulating all of the in-person and absentee ballots they have in hand, as usual. But this year, the state will continue to accept and count absentee ballots through Nov. 10, as long as they are postmarked on or before Election Day. During that seven-day extension, new results will come in as counties provide daily reports on how many absentee ballots they have received and how many they have processed. Simon is warning there may be no “instant gratification” in knowing some race winners on election night.

PROCESSING AND TRACKING ABSENTEE BALLOTS

The state knows who has requested absentee ballots and who has returned them, and there are safeguards in place to prevent ballot tampering and fraud. Unlike other states that automatically send ballots to every voter, or states that rely only on signatures, Minnesotans who want to vote absentee must request a ballot, and they must provide either a driver’s license number or Social Security number as a primary means of identification. When voters mail back their ballots, they must provide that same identifying information, to make sure it matches.

Voters can track their own ballots online, including looking up whether their ballot was received and accepted by their local elections office.

WHAT’S DIFFERENT FOR ABSENTEE BALLOTS THIS YEAR?

Elections officials can start processing absentee ballots on Oct. 20 (two weeks before the election) instead of the typical seven says prior, to give them more time to handle the higher volume. But ballots cannot actually be tabulated until polls close.

There is no witness requirement for absentee ballots this year, due to COVID-19 concerns.

ARE THE ELECTIONS SECURE?

Simon said that the state has been working hard with intelligence officials to reduce the risk of cybersecurity threats and of potential interference from a foreign adversary.

Minnesota’s reliance on paper ballots, instead of electronic voting, helps, he said. Paper ballots and vote totals are reviewed by city, county, and state election officials several times before an election is certified by the state canvassing board.

And Simon said when it comes to absentee ballots, additional layers of security include the requirement for an identification number, rather than simply a signature.

There are also safeguards for those who return absentee ballots for others. Minnesota law allows someone to return ballots for up to three other people — but that person must show identification and sign a log noting whose ballots they are returning. The three-person limit was lifted briefly during a window that included the state primary but has since been reinstated for the general election.

PENDING LITIGATION

A challenge to Minnesota’s seven-day extension for counting absentee ballots is currently before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. State Republican Rep. Eric Lucero and GOP activist James Carson had sued Simon, who is a Democrat, over the extension, arguing it violates federal law. They appealed after a federal judge sided with the state, ruling that giving voters conflicting information after absentee ballots already went out would create confusion.

Another case before the 8th Circuit involves Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District, where Democratic U.S. Rep. Angie Craig is seeking her second term. Craig went to federal court after the September death of a third-party candidate triggered a state law that moved the 2nd District election to February. Craig won — and the election was moved back to Nov. 3 — but her Republican challenger, Tyler Kistner, is appealing. If the delay is reinstated it would leave the 2nd District without representation for weeks.