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Midterm absentee voter turnout surges as races strike a chord with Northlanders

Phil Chapman (left) , elections supervisor and deputy auditor, and Lisa Sweet, information specialist, run through sample ballots on Automark voting machines prior to the election. They were simulating voting to check their choices against the print-outs. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Arielle Ruben, information specialist, runs test ballots on an Automark voting machine on a recent afternoon in the St. Louis County Courthouse. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Lisa Sweet (left), information specialist, and Phil Chapman, elections supervisor and deputy auditor, run sample ballots on Automark voting machines prior to the election. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 3

The St. Louis County Auditor office hasn't had much downtime this week. How could they with the number of ballots coming in?

As of 8:30 a.m. Friday morning, the office tallied 11,572 absentee ballots from across the county. That's almost 4,000 more than the total number of absentee ballots cast in the 2014 midterm race.

"All of the clerk's office is much busier," said Phil Chapman, the election supervisor for St. Louis County. "It is nice to see the voter turnout and people being engaged and people participating in the election."

The number is also striking because it's closing in on the total number of absentee ballots cast in the 2016 race, which came in at 15,259 votes. Higher numbers are typical for races involving a presidential election. But these are the midterms, the ugly duckling of the elections which historically carries lower turnout because of a lack of a presidential election.

Duluth totals are high as well. So far, 4,135 votes have been counted in 2018, already more than the 3,091 absentee votes counted in 2014.

"The direct balloting will spike those numbers as well," said Chapman. "On the Friday, Saturday and Monday ... we're really busy before the election. It's what we've seen in the past."

Direct balloting, which allows people to vote in person before election day, was introduced in 2016 in Minnesota. It ushered in 1,781 votes during that election cycle. As of Friday morning, 428 votes were cast using that method.

The surge in turnout shouldn't be a surprise. The numbers tallied after the August primary elections were high. The Minnesota Secretary of State tweeted that the 900,000 ballots cast during the primary were a 24-year high. Duluth mirrored that trend by more than doubling 2014's numbers.

Cynthia Rugeley, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, thinks the combination of competitive high profile elections, Minnesota's history of strong turnout and a lack of gerrymandered districts is playing a role as well.

"Honestly, I think it's everything," Rugeley said. "So much is on the ballot here. So much is riding in Minnesota here. Two senators, a whole slate of statewide races, an open district race. I wouldn't be surprised to see turnout matching the presidential election."

Rugeley said seats that have an entrenched incumbent in a gerrymandered district means little competition, which translates to low voter turnout. That's not Minnesota, which includes open seats in the 8th Congressional District race, state attorney general race, gubernatorial race and a recently filled senate seat which is "virtually for an open seat."

However, absentee ballots don't necessarily translate to high voter turnout on election day. Rugeley said "people that vote absentee usually vote anyway" which doesn't indicate a new swell of voters. A higher voter turnout would mean certain demographics that weren't turning out are now coming to the polls. However, because the 2018 absentee numbers are nearing what totaled in the 2016 election, Rugeley said something is happening.

"The fact that people are turning in these votes and have enough interest is a sign something is going on," she said. "It's growing. The fact it is so much larger than it is in other years would indicate we'll have a high turnout. If the numbers are comparable to 2016, you can make some assumptions it's going to be a big year."

In a follow-up interview to the auditor's office Friday afternoon, Phil Chapman pulled new numbers around 2 p.m. Friday on St. Louis County absentee voting. It had risen by 700 more votes in just over five hours.

Northland races to watch

8th Congressional District: With a national spotlight focused on Minnesota's northland district, the district has received media coverage from across the country because of its competitive race. A historically Democratic seat is being challenged by Republican candidate and Northland native Pete Stauber, a retired Duluth police officer and current St. Louis County commissioner. Pushing back from the Democratic wing is Joe Radinovich, who describes himself as a "fourth-generation Iron Ranger." Together, the two have embraced local issues such as mining and environmental degradation, rural and urban health care and the opioid crisis — all while national figures such as President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and former President Barack Obama weigh in on the race.

Minnesota House District 7A: Elected in 2014, Democrat Jennifer Schultz is looking to retain her seat, which represents east Duluth. She'll be facing off against Republican Dana Krivogorsky, who ran for Duluth School Board in 2017. Krivogorsky told an audience at a debate last September that her knowledge of the city's public schools gave her "the upper hand" in understanding how better to solve the district's issues. Irritated with the lack of public knowledge about how much is spent in the district, she thought the administration had left the schools in "absolute shambles." She also dislikes how much Republicans are blamed for the state's issues. Schultz has prioritized nonprofit community mental health, an AIDS drug assistance program and renovation funding for Glensheen Mansion.

Minnesota House District 7B: Running in her first re-election campaign after taking office in 2016, Democrat Liz Olson serves on three committees which focus on long-term care, government finance and health and human services reform. She's authored bills ranging from older and vulnerable adult statutes, Lake Superior Zoo exhibit funding and exempting nonprofit corporations that operate ice arenas used for youth and high school programs. She is facing a challenge from Caroline Burley, who has voiced her displeasure for the Duluth sales tax, which was approved locally but shot down by the legislature earlier this year. Lamenting the amount of poverty prevalent in the city, she told audiences at a debate the poor were already struggling enough, and a sales tax would only hurt them more. She also wants to get rid of Common Core in public schools and re-establish a "moral foundation" in the education system.

Minnesota House District 3B: Held by Mary Murphy for 42 years, the DFL incumbent represents the area just north of Duluth, which includes Hermantown, Proctor and Two Harbors. The key issues listed on her website are labor and union advocacy, women's economic issues, education, consumer protection, health care and criminal justice. She's served as the chair for several legislative committees, helped author legislation which established several social services and won several awards. Challenging her for the seat is Republican Keith MacDonald. A former Hermantown mayor, MacDonald listed as his top two priorities increased competition among health insurers and to give public schools grades as a motivation for improved success.

St. Louis County Board of Commissioners: Frank Jewell, an eight-year incumbent is facing off against Jim Booth, a military veteran, in the race for the 1st District seat on the County Board. At a September debate, the biggest difference between the two competing for the position was over proposed mining in the area. Jewell, who stated he would be happy to endorse a copper-nickel operation in the area if it met all environmental standards, said the proposal to have mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has failed to do so. Booth said he's in favor of it. The primary tension over mining continues to be geography and the proposed PolyMet project near Hoyt Lakes as well as the proposed Twin Metals project near Ely. Both also agreed that the old argument to split up St. Louis County due to its large size was out of the question. They also appreciated the efforts between the police and state department of health in the fight against the opioid crisis as well as the need to address out-of-home placements among children.

Duluth school district referendum: There will be three questions on the school district referendum voters will be asked to answer on Tuesday. The first question will ask voters to approve a 10-year renewal of the current operating levy, which is $371 per student. The second question would raise that amount to an additional $575 per student for 10 years, equating to an additional $8.64 more per month in property tax on a home valued at $150,000. That proposal would net $5 million more per year while raising taxes. The third question will ask voters for an additional $335 per student for 10 years. The tax increase would cost a house valued at $150,000 an additional $5 per month, giving the district access to $2.9 million per year. The total raise in taxes if all three questions passed would be just under $14 more per month. The School Board has emphasized if the initial tax renewal on question one is not approved, questions two and three automatically fail, regardless of the vote, and the district would lose about $3.3 million.

Hermantown City Council: There are two open seats on the Hermantown City Council. The incumbents, Natalie Peterson and Gloria Nelson, are running against Shannon Jorgenson and Shannon Cornelius. Nelson has been on the council for six years and Peterson has been on the council for four years. Jorgenson is a small-business owner with her husband and formerly served as employee benefits administrator for the city of Duluth. Cornelius owns Yellow Bike Coffee, which opened last December.

Proctor City Council: Four people are running for City Council in Proctor: Jake Benson, Rory Johnson, Laura Vu and Travis White. Incumbent Benson is publisher of the Proctor Journal newspaper. Johnson has taught in Proctor for over 30 years at the local high school. Vu is a 30-year employee of Essentia Health and is involved with the United Steelworkers union. White, who has previously served on the Proctor city council, works for the United States Postal Service and was a union steward and sergeant-at-arms.