by Drake Lawrence
On occasion, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs highlights stories of innovation from government offices around the state of Minnesota and the Native nations that share its geography. Here we highlight the Anoka County Office of Elections and Voter Registration and its efforts to promote trust among constituents through further transparency, by producing an informational video detailing the steps taken to count absentee ballots.
Voters nationwide turned out in record numbers in the November 2020 election, and once again Minnesotan led the nation with a nearly 80 percent voter turnout. But the increase in voter turnout, the many technical and structural changes made to the voting process due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the intensified national discourse over election security, required election officials to be more transparent about the voting process.
In Anoka County, the elections office addressed these challenges by providing the public with clear and trusted information, to ensure that both voting, and how those votes are processed, is accessible.
Nearly 3.3 million Minnesotans voted in the November election, and more than 1.9 million of them cast absentee ballots. In Anoka County, the state’s fourth largest, voters cast more than 117,000 absentee ballots.
The higher turnout as a whole was likely the result of a more engaged populace in both national and local politics, but the increase in absentee ballots was in large part due to the health and safety precautions put in place because of the pandemic.
Transparency in the vote-counting process
With so many more absentee ballots to process, election officials around the country needed to change the logistics of voting and counting ballots. And those logistics needed to be explained to voters, many of whom were casting absentee ballots for the first time.
Humphrey School alumnus Paul Linnell (MPP ‘15), elections manager at Anoka County, and his team worked with communications director Erik Thorson to create a video detailing the step-by-step process of how Anoka County absentee ballots are opened, verified, and counted. The video does much to explain how each ballot is handled—from two-staff verification, to visuals showing how vote totals are verified, to the sealing of boxes containing counted ballots. It addresses several questions around vote tallying that gained online and national attention.
While the video is specific to Anoka County’s process, the general steps are the same throughout the state. So other counties as well as the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office shared this video as a tool for engaging with voters.
As Linnell noted, fewer than 10 of the state’s 87 counties have full-time staff who work solely on elections as Anoka County does, so their ability to produce information like this yields benefits outside Anoka’s jurisdiction.
“With allegations about the voting process, founded or unfounded, we need voters to feel confident in the voting system, and we can start with more information,” said Linnell.
Promoting trust in election systems
The work of providing further transparency is not only important to the voters in Anoka County, but also to the wider public. Nationwide voters demonstrated an increased appetite for understanding the processes in place in our elections.
From concerns around foreign involvement in elections, to the efficacy of certain voting tools and equipment, to questions about partisanship in our election systems, public trust in voting became a national concern. The National Association of Secretaries of State launched a campaign, #TrustedInfo2020, as a tool to share verified information and to promote elections officials as the trusted source for voters.
“There’s a saying in elections, ‘You want to stay out of the newspapers.’ If you’re in the news, it's usually worst case. But that’s not the case anymore,” said Linnell.
So this work is not solely about educating absentee voters themselves, but also an initiative to build trust through transparency and to make election resources more available to the public.
What future elections might look like
Many of the structural, logistical changes that election offices made for the 2020 election were a direct response to the need for safety during the pandemic. So some policies are likely temporary. And changing election policies is generally difficult, in part because of the partisan nature of the debate over voting rights and access, and in part because funding for change often only comes through crisis, whether it be a pandemic, a close vote or recount, or an increase in concerns about process.
In Minnesota, which passed "no-excuse needed" absentee voting in 2013, election officials are allowed to open and process absentee ballots seven days prior to the conventional “Election Day.” In 2020, that seven-day processing time was extended to 14 days because of the higher number of absentee ballots.
This is different from other states where counting absentee ballots could only begin on Election Day and was not completed for several days afterward. Some of those states faced extra scrutiny and in some cases, lawsuits, over their ballot counting processes. Minnesota’s 14-day processing time is set to go back to seven days in future elections.
One question yet unanswered is how absentee voters in 2020 will cast their ballots in elections to come.
Some voters enjoy the sense of community that comes from voting in person and are likely to return to that practice in the future. But numbers show that absentee voters tend to stay absentee voters, according to Linnell. Because of the convenience of voting absentee, he expects the number of people doing so to remain high in future elections.
The goal of election offices statewide is to provide the best resources and most accurate, timely, and accessible voting experience possible for all eligible voters, and to advocate for administrative changes that allow them to run the best elections possible.
Anoka County elections officials are working to ensure that their constituents understand the voting process and the laws that govern their work, to build more trust in the election system and those who run it. Their efforts to increase transparency through direct communication and accessible resources for their constituents are indicative of a dedication to the most fundamental part of a democracy: a fair and accurate election.