Absentee ballot counting 2

A specialized ballot reader at the Blue Earth County elections office can rapidly count large stacks of ballots — something that’s being put to use in a year when mail-in balloting is skyrocketing.

MANKATO — Even as the White House casts suspicion on voting by mail, Blue Earth County residents are adopting the practice at historic levels.

A little over 2,000 people voted by all available means in the 2016 primary election in Blue Earth County. For this year’s Aug. 11 primary, more than 3,200 mail-in ballots have already been accepted as of Saturday afternoon and that figure could approach 4,000 by Election Day.

While time is running out for mail-in balloting for the primary election, early voting for the Nov. 3 general election begins on Sept. 18.

For traditional voters wondering how the process works — and for people who might be skeptical of the security of voting by mail — the man who oversees the process in Blue Earth County provided a closer look at the safeguards in place.

Michael Stalberger, director of property and environmental resources, intentionally avoids discussing any partisan topics, so he offered no opinion on recent unsubstantiated claims by President Donald Trump and other White House officials that mail-in balloting would result in massive amounts of fraud in the 2020 election. But Stalberger laid out the security measures in place in Minnesota to minimize illegal voting while maintaining access for legitimate voters even in a pandemic.

So how do people get their mail-in ballots?There are three basic ways. Voters can stop by the Blue Earth County Historic Courthouse and fill out an application for a ballot, which includes measures to prove the applicant’s identity and their residence in the precinct where they are planning to vote. If everything checks out, they get their ballot and a trio of envelopes for returning it by mail once they’ve picked their candidates.

The county also sends out ballots to all registered voters in certain rural precincts that do their voting strictly by mail. The ballots go to everyone who has voted at least once in the past two election cycles, but only after each voter has been checked against several databases. The Department of Corrections database removes people who have been convicted of a felony, the Department of Health database eliminates those who have died, and the U.S. Postal Service disqualifies former residents who have moved to a new precinct.

Eligible voters return the ballot, along with an ID number such as a driver’s license number or the last four digits of a Social Security Number and their signature.

Residents of those mail-only precincts who haven’t voted recently or just moved there need to register to vote to get their ballot, proving their identity with a driver’s license number or Social Security Number and their place of residence via a variety of documents. Those voters can also register and cast a ballot simultaneously if it’s close to Election Day by having a witness check those verification documents and sign a form — mailed with the ballot — attesting that the voter is legit.

People who live in places with traditional polling places can opt to vote by mail, too, using the same process as those registering to vote in a mail-in precinct.

The county mails the ballot and related materials to the voter’s home in a “no-forwarding” envelope that requires the Postal Service to return the materials to the county if the recipient has moved to a different address.

What happens next?

Voters vote. They then put the ballot in a “ballot secrecy envelope” and seal it, protecting the privacy of the voter’s political preferences. That envelope goes inside a second envelope. On the outside of the second envelope is the precinct involved and spaces for the voter’s ID number and their signature attesting to their eligibility to vote. The second envelope goes inside a third postage-paid envelope that is the one the mail carrier sees.

And when the envelope reaches the county elections office?

The second envelope is removed from the outer envelope, and elections workers verify that the ID number matches the voter and checks the signature, officially accepting the ballot.

“It has to be handled by two people. There’s always a double-check,” Stalberger said.

One worker checks to make sure the required information is on the envelope and initials it. Then the second does the same.

When they are in agreement, the receipt of the ballot is entered into a computer database that the voter can check at mnvotes.org to make sure the ballot was received. The database is also used to ensure that the same voter doesn’t try to vote in person at their polling place or to request a mail-in ballot in another precinct in Minnesota.

A running tally is kept of all ballots accepted for each precinct.

How is the ballot counted?

As Election Day approaches, county officials are allowed to begin counting mail-in ballots. In a normal year, it’s seven days before Election Day. Because the COVID-19 pandemic was expected to greatly increase the popularity of mail-in ballots, elections workers were given an extra week for processing them.

On Thursday, Ian and Amber were the two county elections workers who made up the “ballot board” handling the actual ballots mailed to the county.

“They always work in pairs,” Stalberger said.

First, they sliced open the second envelopes from Rapidan Township, setting aside the folded ballot from each envelope. Once that was done and the names and ID numbers were separated from the stack of ballots, they began looking at the ballots themselves.

If the ballot is damaged in a way that threatens to cause problems for the ballot-counting machine, say a large food stain or a missing corner, Amber can create a duplicate ballot — matching the votes from the original — with Ian verifying her work. In most cases, the ballot is pristine and can be set in the stack to be counted. In Rapidan Township’s case, every ballot was perfect.

Ballots can never be added or subtracted because the total number of ballots for the precinct must match the tallies from previous stages in the processing.

At night, all ballots and yet-to-be-processed ballot envelopes are stored in a locked vault with an alarm system.

On Friday, Blue Earth County began running mail-in ballots through the counting machine, although results won’t be released until just after the polls close at 8 p.m. on Aug. 11.

Could somebody forge ballots and mail them to the county?

They could, but there would be a lot more work than that required to get the ballots counted. First, there are security markings on ballots that would have to be matched perfectly. Second, the forger would also have to recreate the three envelopes involved with each mail-in ballot. Third, they would still have to match each forgery to an actual person who is eligible to vote in the precinct, complete with the person’s ID number and a forged signature.

And each act committed by the forger would be a felony.

What about ballot harvesting?

That’s a term referring to the practice in some states of political parties hiring people to collect mail-in ballots from voters as Election Day approaches. It’s an attempt to ensure that people who received an absentee ballot actually vote, and a political party can focus harvesters on voters likely to support that party.

While ballot harvesting is a variation of traditional get-out-the-vote efforts, some opponents of the practice say it can be abused.

In any case, Minnesota doesn’t really allow ballot harvesting. Under state law, a person is prohibited from delivering the ballots of more than three voters. In addition, the person has to provide an ID and sign an attestation that he or she is delivering the ballots at the request of the voter.

Do polling places offer any advantages?Voting in person has the edge on absentee voting in one important way — a second chance to get it right. With mail-in ballots, voters who mess up will end up in the rejected-ballots pile. For instance, in a primary election, it’s not allowed to vote on both the Democratic side of the ballot and the Republican side.

With mail-in ballots, voters who do that will not have their ballots counted. Voting in person, those same voters would see their ballots rejected by the voting machine and could ask for a new ballot to correct their mistake. There is a sort-of hybrid option. Voters can go to their county elections office in the days leading up to Election Day, request an absentee ballot, fill it out and have it fed immediately into the voting machine.

“Voting from home is safe and easy,” Stalberger said. “If they want to make sure their ballot is counted, they either have to come to the vote-early window or go to their polling place.”

Polling places are superior in one additional way: It’s the only option for getting an “I voted” sticker.