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Associated Press, Published October 29 2010

Minnesota absentee ballots under close scrutiny

ST. CLOUD, Minn. – Three stacks of absentee ballots sit before St. Cloud City Clerk Gregg Engdahl and city employee Jackie Kraus in a room at the Stearns County Administration building.

Engdahl takes a sealed ballot from a pile and reads the information on the outside to Kraus. If the voter took all the appropriate steps, including having a witness with an address, the ballot goes into a blue cardboard box.

If not, the Stearns auditor’s office will send it back to the voter, giving him or her a second chance to make sure the vote counts.

“We let them know there is a deficiency and we can have a do-over,” said Dave Walz, who oversees elections for the Stearns County Auditor-Treasurer’s Office.

This scene is taking place across the state as absentee ballot boards in all 87 counties crank up efforts to identify possible problems with absentee ballots early, so voters can correct them before Election Day.

In 2008, 11,000 ballots out of more than 2.9 million cast in Minnesota were rejected because election officials deemed that the voter had not followed the rules. About 200 were tossed out in Stearns County, fewer in smaller Benton and Sherburne counties. Some of the ballots were eventually counted after a second look by election officials and a state canvassing board.

The Legislature changed some of the requirements on the ballots and created the boards, which review the absentee ballot application and the outside of the ballots before Election Day. The ballot itself is inside a privacy envelope with no identifying marker. Once it is removed, election officials have no way of knowing who cast the ballot.

In Stearns County about 13 percent of the almost 700 absentee ballots reviewed through the middle of last week had problems and needed to be sent back, Walz said. It is estimated that Stearns County will receive between 3,000 and 4,000 absentee ballots this year.

The change adds to the workload for the counties, Walz said. Previously, the absentee ballots would be sent out to the precincts for counting and would be opened on Election Day. If there was any problem, it would be too late and the ballot would not count.

Under the new rules, county staffs will have to work the weekend before the election to begin processing the ballots and running them through the counting machines. The votes are not tallied until after the polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

“It is an immense burden for the counties,” Walz said.

With the election approaching Tuesday, the absentee ballot boards are meeting daily this week to process the crush of expected absentee ballots.

“If they are voting by absentee, we want their ballot to count. We do everything possible in order to ensure that,” Sherburne County Auditor-Treasurer Diane Arnold said.

If the ballot is missing an address or a witness, election officials will send the ballot back. Some counties, including Stearns and Sherburne, will phone or

e-mail to remind voters to get in their ballot so it can be counted in the election. Sherburne is sending a yellow sheet of paper with additional reminders.

The work of examining the details of each ballot falls to trained staff in auditors’ and clerks’ offices. Engdahl has picked up a few shifts verifying the ballots.

“The main thing we are checking for is to see if the ballot was witnessed appropriately, it is dated, the witness gives an address and signs the ballot,” Engdahl said.

The state requires a witness on absentee ballots to make certain the person who was supposed to get the ballot was the same one who cast the vote.

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