FARGO — As North Dakota's first-ever mail-in primary and local elections inch closer, it appears by the numbers that participation will be similar or perhaps better than most in the past decade, according to Secretary of State Al Jaeger.
He and others said with three weeks to go, the election process was "going fine" although Jaeger's office and county auditors who run elections in their locale have been receiving a lot of phone calls to clarify issues.
There was another hiccup on Friday, May 15, when Gov. Doug Burgum surprised Jaeger by announcing at his daily pandemic briefing that county commissioners could approve having a physical polling location and that voters should contact their commissioners if they want to have one.
Burgum's earlier executive order calling for the mail-in election to protect residents included an exception for counties to approve a polling site despite state law. Jaeger, however, said in an interview after Burgum's briefing that all 53 county auditors decided earlier in the pandemic that it would be a mail-in only vote with no polling locations.
He said counties do have the option under Burgum's order, but noted that changing it now would be a challenge.
Despite that flare-up, the ballot requests keep coming, Jaeger said, and as of Friday night, May 15, about 136,800 ballots had been sent out statewide. That almost equals the number of votes cast in the last presidential-year primary in 2016 when 139,957 voters participated. Of the ballots sent, about 12% or 16,900 have been returned.
June primary participation has climbed in the state in the past decade when there were key races, such as in a presidential election year or if voters were deciding on a primary challenge for governor or other statewide office.
In the past decade, other June primary voting numbers include 115,226 in 2018; 93,624 in 2014; 175,303 in 2012; and 102,066 in 2010.
The state currently has about 581,000 eligible voters, although the state's population has been growing and people who have lived here 30 days before the June 9 election can vote.
Political science professor Mark Johnson, who teaches at M State in Moorhead and lives in Fargo, has been watching local and state elections for more than 20 years and doesn't know for sure how it will all end up.
He said when Utah did a statewide mail-in ballot election a few years ago, they found a bump of about 2% to 3% in voter participation.
"It's an odd campaign year, who knows what's going to happen," he said, noting that the staple in local election of going door-to-door is pretty much shut down and he's noticed that candidate forums are down as well as campaign mailings and ads so far.
Thirty-three of the state's 53 counties already do mail-in balloting for all elections.
In one of those western North Dakota counties, Dunn County Auditor Tracey Dolezal said her experience is that the mail-in balloting works "really well." She said participation was up about 18% to 20% when they started the new method in 2018. She said they still had two "voting centers" in the county, but that "overwhelmingly" people voted by mail.
In Cass County, it's definitely a new undertaking, but Mike Montplaisir, the county's finance director who has run elections for years, said the process has been "going well" though it's been a learning experience.
Montplaisir said about 26,000 ballots had been mailed this past week with more expected to be requested in the coming weeks. He thinks the vote will end up being on par with or better than recent elections.
Jaeger said voters should mail back the ballots as soon as possible to help with processing. State law requires them to be mailed or postmarked by June 8 or dropped off at the secure drop boxes found in front of or inside county courthouses across the state by 4 p.m. on June 9.
Montplaisir said some of the main questions his office has been receiving has to do with the top of the ballot where people are asked to choose what election they would like to receive the ballot for. He said if a person checks the "primary" box they will receive all of the ballots for their location. If people also check the box for the local elections being held, that's OK, too.
There's also a box for the "general election" in November. In somewhat of a surprise, Montplaisir said in Cass County about 75% of the applicants asked for a mail-in ballot for that election too that will be mailed out later this year.
Montplaisir said that could relieve some of the pressure to find election judges, often known to be retired senior citizens, and polling places for the November general election.
Here are some often asked questions about this June's election:
What if I didn't receive a mail-in ballot in the mail?
Wannabe voters who turn 18 by June 9 can go to the state's website www.vote.nd.gov. Voters can apply for a mail-in ballot in a rather simple application process. There's even a tab on the top of the page where voters can check the status of their ballot, if it's been mailed or not, by typing in their name and birth date. All a voter needs is a driver's license number, non-driver's ID, tribal ID, passport or military ID or long-term care certificate. There's even an application box for voters without an ID. Some people may have moved or are new to the state and didn't receive a ballot. They should also go to the website, call Jaeger's office at 701-328-4146 or contact their county auditor.
What if I don't have a computer or access?
County auditors or the secretary of state's office can mail a ballot to voters if you give them a call.
How long after applying until my ballot is received?
The Secretary of State's office said to allow for 10 days after sending the application. If you apply after May 31, it is recommended you take the application to the county auditor or call for email or fax options.
What if I make a mistake on my ballot?
You can request a replacement by calling the county auditor's office.
Anything else after filling out the ballot?
Make sure you place your voted ballot inside the brown secrecy envelope first, then place the secrecy envelope inside the return envelope. You must date and sign the affidavit on the back of the return envelope and put a postage stamp on it before mailing it back to the county auditor or dropping it in a secure drop box at the courthouses.
Some ballots were mailed to persons who no longer live in North Dakota. Why?
The Central Voter file, fed mostly by the driver's license bureau, has some people who may have moved out of state but ballots were also mailed to inactive voters who may not have voted recently. Of the 680,000 voters in the Central Voter File, about 100,000 came back from the postal service as undeliverable. They could be then purged from the voting rolls. Democratic Party Chairwoman Kylie Oversen said Friday she was concerned about the process, though, as one ballot application was forwarded to a former resident in Colorado and that one farmer in northeast North Dakota had received ballots for migrant workers who may have had a state ID but weren't citizens.
Will anyone know how I voted?
No. Ballots are handled by election judges who first check the signature on the envelopes to see if they match then separate the secret ballot.