County Manager Column from Oct. 20, 2020

Elections team (again) rises to the challenge of a historic election

Since I joined Ramsey County more than seven years ago, one consistent theme that has come through loud and clear about Elections is our commitment to provide voters with every option available under the law to allow them to cast their ballots in the manner they choose to. With the 2020 general election just two weeks away, our Elections team and our partners have needed to put every lesson we’ve learned from these past election cycles into practice – and then some.

We’ve been promoting absentee voting aggressively since it opened statewide on Sept. 18 as we - and our voters - have sought ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19 through minimizing in-person contact and following other important Public Health guidelines. As of this writing, the daily dashboard on our online open data portal shows that of 336,132 registered Ramsey County voters*, we have issued 182,495 absentee ballots – a whopping 54%. In addition, nearly 109,000 of those ballots have already been returned and accepted in the Elections office. Prior to this year, the highest number of absentee votes processed for an election was about 63,000.

Another new dynamic this year is that about 25% of the absentee ballots have been returned to staff in person at our ballot drop-off sites. These are used when a voter requests a ballot through the mail but prefers to deliver it to us themselves. We’ve trained staff at 10 locations throughout the county – including at our new Service Centers – who have received thousands and thousands of ballots from voters who have chosen this option. These locations are each designed in accordance with statewide mandates and public health guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – for instance, there’s ample space and signage emphasizing social distancing and use of face coverings. Additionally, we’ve partnered with Major League Soccer and Minnesota United FC to use Allianz Field in the Midway neighborhood for a special ballot return event the last few days before Election Day.

For those voters who choose to fill out ballots onsite and like the feeling of inserting them right into the ballot counter, seven additional sites across the county will offer this option beginning Oct. 27. And of course, we will again stand up about 140 neighborhood polling places across the county for traditional in-person voting on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3. This year though – like our ballot return locations – each polling place will also be laid out and operated following guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  

This effort takes an incredible amount of work, and to help the Elections team has recruited and trained about 2,500 elections judges – compared to a typical 1,600-1,700. Judges do a wide range of activities to ensure a fair, accurate, well-run election. Other departments such as Information Services, Public Health, Property Management, Emergency Management & Homeland Security, Information & Public Records Administration, Communications & Public Relations and the County Attorney’s Office have partnered with Elections in critical support roles. And, Elections also got help to ensure successful implementation of its plans when the nonprofit Center for Civic and Tech Life accepted their grant application and provided $2.75 million to help fund things like elections judges wages, materials, storage space, security, equipment and more.

In total, all of these changes have prompted many questions about voting this year, and the Elections team joined our commissioners for a wide-ranging workshop this morning to answer questions and provide up-to-the-minute information in fine detail how we are administering this election.

Watch the video of the workshop (password: P!em3UHY)

Also, tonight Elections staff will have an opportunity to reprise this effort in a virtual town hall for the public which is being co-presented by the COVID-19 Racial Equity and Community Engagement Response Team. This will be a great way to inform our residents about the ins-and-outs of how to vote this year – and allow the experts to clear up some of the misinformation about voting. Please feel free to share this event widely with your networks!

Voting in the 2020 Election Virtual Town Hall

One of the topics they’re sure to discuss is election results. In Minnesota, the Secretary of State has granted an additional week to count this enormous increase in the number of absentee ballots. Like all other elections offices in Minnesota, we’ll provide the results we have on election night to the Secretary of State. Then, as the remainder of ballots that were postmarked by Election Day continue to arrive in the days that follow, we’ll continue providing the results to the Secretary of State each weekday so that all ballots that have been legally cast are counted.

I can’t say enough about the hard work of the Elections team and what a great job they’ve done. On its own, this would be a uniquely challenging election. However, it will also cap the busiest run of work for Ramsey County Elections in modern memory. The team has administered busy elections on every possible date since May 2019 – including two special elections. Most impressively, each step of the way they have expanded options for voters to ensure that anyone who can legally vote and wants to cast a ballot has the opportunity to do so. This work is foundational to our democracy and something we should all be proud of – Kudos, Elections team!

*-The number of registered voters in the 2016 presidential election was about 305,000 – kudos to all of those behind our outreach efforts who have helped to register more than 10% new eligible voters in just four years! Our efforts to work directly with community partners and recognize that we needed to break through racial, ethnic and cultural barriers has proven successful in engaging more residents, earlier, in this election. These outcomes demonstrate why our focus on community engagement and racial equity matters across our operational work.