MANKATO — Voters in Mankato will need to check their polling place location this election year because pandemic-related measures mean 11 of 18 precincts will be casting ballots in a new spot.
In a couple of cases, traditional voting locations have been dropped because they house populations that election officials don’t want exposed to potential infections carried by voters. That’s why there are no schools on Mankato’s list and why the Ecumen Pathstone Living polling location on Mound Avenue has been moved to the Blue Earth County Historical Society on Warren Street.
“We got pretty clear guidance we shouldn’t be using those sorts of facilities,” said Michael Stalberger, who oversees ballot distribution and counting throughout Blue Earth County and contracts with the city of Mankato to conduct elections there.
Other voting locations were moved to allow for a new option for voters in 2020 — pulling up outside the polling place and having a ballot brought to them.
“Any voter in Minnesota who is not able to enter the polling place or is not comfortable entering the polling place can request curbside voting,” Stallberger said.
Some of Mankato’s previous polling places weren’t well situated for curbside voting.
“We just had to make sure we had sites that were accessible for that,” he said.
In many cases, polling places have been moved to buildings with lengthy climate-controlled interior hallways or spacious rooms where voters can queue up — six feet apart — even during the busiest periods of Election Day. And new polling places often are in structures where people can enter in one spot and leave from another to avoid voters bunching up at a shared entrance/exit.
The total number of voting locations in Mankato is actually being reduced substantially — from 13 to seven. Stalberger concedes that it seems counterintuitive to be concentrating people in fewer locations in a time of pandemic-related social distancing. But the new locations include sprawling buildings where polling places can be set up for multiple precincts and still remain widely separated.
The MRCI Building on Map Drive is an example. Five precincts will be spread out in various parts of the building, which the nonprofit stopped using for employment opportunities and other day services for people with disabilities earlier in the pandemic.
The building has a huge production area, a large cafeteria and broad corridors. And because of the nature of the clientele the building served, it’s entirely accessible for people with disabilities, according to Stalberger.
“We’re really excited about the MRCI location,” he said.
Similar large spaces and corridors were available at Christ the King Lutheran Church, which will provide polling places for three precincts, and the National Guard Armory, which will continue to be home to three precincts.
Polling locations will be irrelevant for a growing share of voters in 2020 if early requests for absent balloting are any indication.
“AB is going crazy,” Stallberger said. “Tons of requests for that.”
As of late Saturday morning, Blue Earth County was preparing to send out about 1,800 ballots for the Aug. 11 primary election with another 134 queued up and ready to hit the mail early next week. So the number of requested mail-in ballots is nearly quadruple the total number for the primary election in 2018 with more than two weeks until Election Day.
“It was right around 500 for the entire primary period,” he said of 2018. “We’re getting requests of about 40 a day.”
People planning to request a mail-in ballot will need to keep an eye on potentially changing rules between now and the general election on Nov. 3 because there has been fighting, including court challenges, over some new provisions for absentee balloting. Pandemic-related changes for the primary election include the elimination of the longstanding requirement that absentee voters need a witness. And ballots for the primary will still be counted even if they aren’t received by Election Day, so long as they were postmarked by Election Day and are received by the county by the day prior to the day vote totals are officially certified. In Blue Earth County, that means ballots must be in the county’s hands by Thursday, Aug. 13, and have a postmark no later than Aug. 11.
Voters can still request ballots for the primary election. And early-birds can actually begin submitting their general election absentee ballot as early as Sept. 18. But, again, Stallberger said people should look closely at the instructions accompanying the absentee ballot because the legal challenges could result in changing rules related to witness requirements and when ballots must be received to be counted.
Many small towns and rural areas of Minnesota have switched entirely to mail-in balloting, including four additional townships in Blue Earth County this year. A total of 6,700 primary election ballots are being sent to those voters this week in the county.
Another alternative is absentee balloting at the Blue Earth County Historic Courthouse. People who want to vote before Election Day or want to avoid a potentially crowded polling place can stop by the county election center during business hours, receive their ballot, fill it out and submit it.
In-person absentee balloting is the only sort of voting going on this year at the courthouse. Precinct 10, which voted there in previous elections, will now vote at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 720 S. Second St.
Mankatoans used to voting at Pathstone Living (Precincts 1 and 2) should go this year to the Blue Earth County Historical Society, 424 Warren St. Those who voted at First Congregational United Church of Christ on Stadium Court (Precinct 5) are also at the Historical Society.
Voting at the MRCI Building, 15 Map Drive, in 2020 are those who previously voted at Minnesota State University’s Wiecking Center (Precinct 7), those who voted at MSU’s Taylor Center (Precinct 8), those who voted at Bethel Baptist Church on Monks Avenue (Precincts 9 and 10A) and those who voted at Hillside Assembly of God on South Victory Drive (Precinct 11.)
Christ the King Lutheran Church, 207 McConnell St., is the place to go this election year for people accustomed to casting their ballots at Hosanna Lutheran Church on Hosanna Drive (Precinct 12) and at the Blue Earth County Library on Main Street (Precinct 13.)
And a few voters can go where they’ve always gone — those who have traditionally voted at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church on West Seventh Street (Precincts 1 and 2); at Christ the King (Precinct 14); and at the National Guard Armory (Precincts 15, 16 and 17). No change for those precincts.