With heightened concerns about voting security as political parties have arguably never been more polarized, Mille Lacs County Auditor-Treasurer Eric Bartusch recently weighed on election issues and voting during a pandemic.

Early absentee voting began Friday, Sept. 18. That’s 46 days prior to the Nov. 3 general election. It includes mail-in absentee and in-person absentee voting.

One concern circulating on election-related social media posts is why voters are getting so many unsolicited “ballots” in the mail.

Bartusch clarified that, unless they sent in an application for one, residents are likely not getting ballots in the mail but are getting unsolicited applications.

He explained that the applications are coming from voting groups who requested an application in the person’s name and are making an organized effort to encourage voting by mail.

Bartusch clarified concerns that people may be getting a number of ballots after submitting all the applications they receive in the mail.

“Even if a voter submitted multiple absentee ballot applications to the Minnesota Secretary of State or Mille Lacs County, they would only get one ballot,” he said.

“I understand from a public perspective, that it is concerning when they see multiple applications,” Bartusch said. “The control happens when you return something – we only accept one application per voter and one ballot per voter.”

Bartusch said in a non-COVID year, his office would do all of the counting of absentee ballots on the day of the election.

But because of the number of mail-in ballots the county auditor’s department received in the primary and the time it took to count them, the Mille Lacs County Auditor-Treasurer’s Office will be counting ballots earlier.

The voting process is very stringent, Bartusch said.

“When we receive an absentee ballot, we review the information on the signature envelope and compare it to our records to make sure the voter information matches, and the envelope remains sealed until it is ready to be counted,” he explained. “On Election Day morning, [in a typical year], we open the envelopes and insert the ballots into a tabulator, similar to one found at the precincts.”

County election officials then carefully ensure that the number of ballots received matches the number of ballots that are scanned through the tabulator. All applications and ballots received are stored in a vault each night, Bartusch said.

Eliminating Oddities

What about cats, dogs and dead people? Bartusch was asked about the process to make sure each voter is legitimate, being actually alive, not an animal or a felon.

He said that a registered voter who requests a ballot presents an I.D. and signs a form.

“We check it against the Statewide Voter Registration System,” he added. “When we send out the absentee ballot application, you have to provide the last four digits of your social security number or driver’s license, and we have to match it."

As far as felons or the deceased, voter maintenance is a year round process, Bartusch added.  "If someone is convicted of a felony or passes away, we are notified so that we can keep voter records up to date. It’s a very robust system," he said.

Bartusch added that when someone requests an absentee ballot, they may find that their registration was updated through the DMV or postal system.

Envelope Affiliation?

Another issue brought to Bartusch’s attention was whether or not a political party affiliation is identified on the outside of mail-in envelopes.

Some voters have been concerned about a carrier of their mail-in ballot seeing their political affiliation and somehow disposing of their vote.

During the general election, there will be no indication of a person’s political affiliation on a mail-in or absentee ballot, Bartusch explained. He said there’s no way to tie a vote to a voter.

“There is nothing on the signature envelope that requires a party selection,” he added. “From a results standpoint, there’s no way for even me to know how someone voted. You only know they voted.”

There are three ways people can vote: By mail, in-person early voting and in-person voting on the day of election. When voting by mail, a registered voter requests an absentee ballot by calling their county of residence.

In Mille Lacs County the number is (320) 983-8210). Voters can also visit the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website mnvotes.org and request a ballot.

Bartusch said the prospective voter would complete the application, the ballot would be mailed out and then returned to the county auditor.

“That process can be tracked online through the Secretary of State’s website tracking tool,” Bartusch added. “It tracks it through the statewide registration system and shows that we received the ballot.”

If people have concerns that a ballot was never received, they can call the Mille Lacs County Auditor-Treasurer’s Office and they can look into it, Bartusch said.

“If the ballot hasn’t showed up as received through the tracking tool, it may still be with us and just hasn’t gone through the ballot board yet,” he said. “If a ballot gets lost and we haven’t received it, we can cancel that ballot and send another.”

Bartusch said he fully expects to see a very, very busy absentee voting period. As of Sept. 10, the auditor’s department had 1,290 absentee ballot applications and was still processing ones received, according to Bartusch.

By comparison, during the 2016 general election, there were a total of 2,021 absentee ballots accepted, 452 of which were from the five mail-in precincts. So Bartusch estimates that 1,569 were true absentee/early voters.

If you are mailing in your vote, Bartusch said to make sure you request at least a couple weeks before the election, depending on where you are, as the ballots come straight from his office in Milaca.

He noted a recent development passed by the legislature that says a mail-in ballot can now be postmarked on or before Election Day, Nov. 3, and received to the auditor’s office by Nov. 10.

Canvassing of the election will occur Nov. 12 and 13.

Bartusch said preliminary results will be released prior to the canvassing date.

When voting early in-person, people can come to the Mille Lacs County Auditor-Treasurer’s Office located in the Mille Lacs County Historic Courthouse in Milaca from Friday, Sept. 18, until the day before the election and fill out a ballot in person.

“They have to fill it out right there; they can’t take it with them,” said Bartusch. “If they want a ballot at home, they have to get it via mail.”

The county auditor’s office is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with the addition of Saturday, Oct. 31 (Halloween) from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

On the day before the election on Nov. 2, the auditor’s office will be open until 5 p.m. for early voting.

If a voter is not registered to vote while voting early absentee, they can do so at the courthouse by showing proof of residence at the courthouse.

The third way to vote is in-person on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3.

Bartusch noted that none of the precincts have gone to strictly mail-in voting in light of the pandemic and that the usual 20 precincts in the county will be staffed and open. The five mail-ballot precincts will remain mail-ballot.

Another option, listed on the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website, is having an “agent” pick up a ballot.

Voting In Pandemic

Bartusch said that the Minnesota Secretary of State has been encouraging absentee balloting from a pandemic standpoint to minimize interaction between other voters and polling workers.

“Our precincts are doing everything in their power to create as much safety as they can to have in-person voting,” he said.

Those initiatives include but are not limited to the use of hand sanitizer, surface cleaning, Plexiglas barriers, social distancing efforts, and mask mandate signs."

Bartusch noted the one benefit to voting in person is if something is mismarked on a ballot, the person at the polling location can cancel it and redo the voting.

T.A. LeBrun is the editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger and covers county government for the Union-Times. She can be reached at news@millelacsmessenger.com.

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