Primary voting 1

Justin McDonough heads to the ballot box after voting Tuesday at the MRCI Worksource building. Five precincts had polling places spread out throughout the building, which has large hallways and room for voters to socially distance.

Roughly 75% of voters in Tuesday’s primary election in Mankato didn’t get to see all of the pandemic precautions and procedures put in practice at polling places.

That’s because it looked like roughly three of every four voters used mail-in ballots, said Michael Stalberger, who oversees elections for Blue Earth County.

In previous elections, about 25% of ballots were not cast at traditional precinct polling places on Election Day.

“In this instance, those numbers are nearly flipped for us,” Stalberger said. “... We are significantly, significantly higher than previous years for mail-in ballots.”

With the Postal Service pulling ballots from the mail on Tuesday and bringing them straight to the Historic Courthouse for processing, more than 6,000 had been accepted as of early Tuesday evening.

In Nicollet County, 3,034 mail ballots had been received as of late afternoon with more of Tuesday’s mail still being processed, said Jaci Kopet, who oversees elections there.

As in Blue Earth County, many of those mailed ballots come from townships and towns with fewer than 400 voters where traditional polling places are no longer used. But 1,611 of the ballots received by mail were from voters who had requested to vote absentee rather than go to their traditional neighborhood polling place.

At that pace, the number of absentee votes in the primary — which had virtually no competitive races in many parts of Minnesota — was approaching the absentee ballot total for the 2018 general election when voters were choosing a governor, a U.S. senator, a congressman, state legislators, county commissioners and city council members.

For the minority of voters casting ballots the traditional way, polling places had a nontraditional atmosphere.

“We’ve been spraying down the voting booths, the tables here, door handles,” said Darci Karau, the head judge for Mankato’s Precinct 10 in Bethlehem Lutheran Church.

Election judges were masked, voters were masked, hand sanitizers were in place, each voter got a fresh (or freshly cleaned) pen, the hard-plastic ballot-secrecy sleeves were replaced with disposable sheets of folded freezer paper or one-use manilla folders, voters entered one door and exited another, stickers on the floor showed where voters should stand while waiting their turn ... .

“It seems to be working pretty well,” Karau said. “... We’ve really had no issues at all. People have been really good.”

Masks were technically required in polling places with disposable masks provided for those without one. People who didn’t want to wear a mask (or who didn’t want to enter the polling place) were offered curbside voting. And if someone wanted to come in without a mask, the plan was to allow that and just move the person through the process as quickly as possible.

In reality, all voters had been utterly cooperative, at least through 4:30 p.m. at Precinct 10. Only one of the 86 voters needed to grab one of the provided disposable masks.

At about the same time, not a single person in the three precincts congregated at the Blue Earth County Historical Society had forgotten to bring a mask, said Head Judge Linda McDonald. All the same coronavirus protection measures were in place despite the fact that a construction project at the historical society had forced the polling places into trailers in the parking lot.

None of the election judges had second thoughts about mingling with the general public in the midst of a pandemic, McDonald said.

“They’re all excellent and ready to go,” she said of her poll workers. “Overall, it’s all been very positive and has gone really well.”

In-person turnout was extremely light, just over 50 with less than four hours until the polls closed.

Stalberger said a low-turnout primary election had one advantage — a chance to get any kinks in the health precautions worked out before bigger crowds show up on Nov. 3 for the general election and the high-profile presidential contest.

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