Duluth: Election bottleneck?

Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
Organizing absentee ballots
Election judges Geri Peterson (left) and Marree Seitz organize and tabulate absentee ballots Monday afternoon at Duluth City Hall. More than 2,000 ballots were received. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

A rare, contentious write-in campaign for the western Duluth state House seat could delay St. Louis County election results — and thus final statewide election returns — into Wednesday morning.

That’s the assessment of Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who said the county’s huge size, coupled with far-flung and very rural polling places, usually mean slower election returns. But counting hundreds of ballots with write-in votes by hand in House District 7B could slow that even more.

“Everyone is going to be watching St. Louis because it has such a big impact on the final results for a lot of races, and that write-in campaign is going to have some impact on when we see the numbers,’’ Ritchie said. “I don’t think there are any other major write-in races anywhere else in the state.”

The 7B issue arose when DFL incumbent state Rep. Kerry Gauthier dropped out of the race after the filing deadline ended. The Minnesota Supreme Court allowed the DFL party to replace Gauthier on the ballot with Erik Simonson. Already on the ballot was Republican Travis Silvers. Registered write-in candidates are Jay Fosle and David Pipho.

Don Dicklich, St. Louis County auditor, said the 7B race could again put St. Louis County in last place in election return final results in the state.

But Dicklich said the county has made great strides in getting election results to the state more quickly. That includes new computer software to automatically upload many results directly from precincts rather than waiting for hand-written tallies.

And Dicklich has added a new machine to count absentee ballots on Election Day that can process 300 ballots per minute, up from just three ballots per minute.

“We’re really excited about the upgrades we’ve made, especially in getting the absentee information to the state, because they won’t release any totals until they have both’’ absentee and polling-place ballots, Dicklich said. “We still have a few rural precincts hand-entering some totals. And there’s always a chance we’ll have computer glitches. ... We had that in 2008. But we’ve had a lot of upgrades to speed the process up.”

If it weren’t for the 7B write-in vote, Dicklich predicted the county would have had full results before midnight.

“We just don’t know. We’ve never had a write-in like this before,” Dicklich said. “Jeff (Duluth City Clerk Jeff Cox) says they have a system in place to get that write-in done as quickly as possible. But it could be two o’clock in the morning before we get a final for those 17 precincts. We won’t have finals for any of the races in those precincts until the write-in is counted and reported.”

How write-ins are counted

When voters write in the name of a candidate on the ballot, they also must fill in an oval next to the name, Cox said Monday. The machine diverts the ballots with write-in votes to a separate compartment.

When voting is over, the judges collect the separate pile, ensure the oval is filled in, and the ballot is passed to teams of judges for hand tabulation.

Cox guessed it could take each precinct at least an extra hour, depending on the volume of write-in ballots.

Absentee ballots will already have been counted by 8 p.m. When precinct totals are turned in to the City Clerk’s Office, absentee totals will be added. Those numbers are then turned over to St. Louis County.

Record turnout possible

Dicklich expects a voter turnout approaching or even surpassing the 119,425 people who voted in St. Louis County in 2008. He bases that on the number of absentee ballot requests, which is running at a higher pace than four years ago.

“It tells me we could be in the 120,000 range, based on how the absentees are coming in,’’ Dicklich said.

In Duluth, about 2,000 absentee ballots had been turned in Monday afternoon. Cox remembers presidential elections in which absentee ballots topped 3,200. Still, he expects voting lines to be long. As of Oct. 16, there are 51,405 registered voters in Duluth.

Expect crowds any time after 4 p.m. he said.

Ritchie told the News Tribune on Monday that he expects the state to post another nation-topping voter turnout of about 78 percent. Minnesota typically leads the nation in the percentage of eligible voters who vote, once hitting 78.4 percent, Ritchie said.

Because Minnesota has more eligible voters than ever before, with a growing population, the state could top 3 million ballots cast, topping the old record of about 2.9 million, Ritchie said.

More than 270,000 Minnesotans requested absentee ballots for today’s election and most — more than 235,000 — already had been returned and accepted by Monday. Minnesota doesn’t have early voting for any reason, as some states do. But any voter who will be out of their home precinct can obtain an absentee ballot through the day before the election.

Ritchie said he expects few polling-place problems, with fewer long lines at the 8 p.m. closing time, after precincts were redrawn this year to account for population changes.

“In some cases in the past, you can get new housing developments and apartment buildings, and pretty soon some precincts have way too many people in them. … But that shouldn’t happen this time,’’ Ritchie said.

Voter turnout might be higher in the 8th Congressional District because of the U.S. House race between Republican incumbent Chip Cravaack and Democratic challenger Rick Nolan, a former U.S. representative, said Wy Spano, founder and co-director of the Masters of Advocacy and Political Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

“The Nolan campaign being new, and new Democrats being involved, it’s possible to get some excitement cranked up, and Rep. Cravaack hasn’t had a chance to look like old hat quite yet, so his original crew is there,” Spano said. “The turnout is certainly going to be better than two years ago.”

The marriage amendment issue, too, should cause higher turnout in Minnesota, he said.

“I have never seen activity like this on any ballot effort, ever,” Spano said of the Vote No on the marriage amendment campaign. “There are thousands of people in the state working on this thing.”

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