Duluth encourages voters to cast ballots by mail to minimize COVID-19 risk

The city clerk's office has seen interest in absentee voting soar.

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It's not often you hear election officials encouraging voters to avoid their local polling places, but these are uncommon times.

"If you are able to vote by mail, it is definitely a great option, in light of COVID," said Chelsea Helmer, Duluth's director of administrative services and city clerk. She noted that it's an efficient process that's extremely safe.

Amy Westbrook, director of St. Louis County's public health division, agreed.

"We certainly want to see people to continue to minimize contact with other people in large groups," she said.

Secretary of State Steve Simon also encouraged voters to cast absentee ballots.


“We need to treat the upcoming statewide elections as a public health issue," he said.

"To slow the spread of COVID-19 we need to reduce large gatherings, including at polling places. I’m challenging all eligible Minnesota voters to cast their vote from the safety of their home. In the face of this pandemic, it is the right thing to do to protect Minnesotans who are most at risk, and the people who care for them. Fortunately, it’s very easy to do," Simon said in a written statement.

Westbrook advised people to exercise their own personal judgment.

"Voting by mail is certainly a smart option to avoid social interactions in public. But at the same time, I know they're working to make those locations as safe as possible," she said.

People need not be overly fearful of the polls, said Helmer, noting that election staff will be equipped with masks and disinfectants to keep voting stations and writing utensils safe and clean.

Helmer advised people to expect longer lines and greater wait times at the polls this year, as election officials do their best to promote social distancing, with people maintaining a 6-foot spacing.

Staffing the polls also could be a challenge this year, as many of the state's most dependable election judges and workers are retirees.

Westbrook said any hesitation of elderly people to staff the polls would be understandable.


"We know that some populations are at higher risk of more severe illness with COVID-19. So, people with underlying health conditions or who are over the age of 65 certainly want to be more cautious about going out and having interactions with other people, especially in public. So, if people fall within those risk categories, it would be wise to stay away from crowds and public places," she said.

Helmer confirmed that a number of people have decided to sit out serving as election judges this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We are concerned about staffing, very much so. That is a concern of election administrators throughout the state of Minnesota," said Helmer, noting that the city intends to mount a recruiting effort to ensure it has adequate resources to maintain polling stations in all 34 of its precincts. But some of those polling places will need to be moved regardless, because they're located in senior care facilities.

Anyone interested in serving as an election judge can access an application on the city of Duluth's website or can call the city clerk's office at 730-5500.

Helmer said there's a very real possibility of difficulties, pointing Minnesota's neighbor as an example.

"We saw in Wisconsin that many of the precincts were not able to be staffed, and they had to consolidate polling locations and call in the National Guard to staff precincts," she said.

Absentee voting ABCs

People can request an absentee ballot by visiting , by emailing or by calling 218-730-5900. To obtain an absentee ballot, a person must fill out a form and provide the last four digits of their Social Security number, or the numbers from a valid Minnesota driver's license or a Minnesota-issued ID card.

Helmer said her office already has seen a notable uptick in requests for absentee ballots this year. In recent elections, as much as about 5% of the vote has been cast by absentee ballot, but Helmer said she expects those ballots to constitute a much higher share of the vote this year.


Ballots won't be mailed until June 26 for the Aug. 11 primary election and until probably September or October for the Nov. 3 general election. Helmer said people can request a ballot for both the primary and the general election with a single form.

Mailed ballots must be validated by a witness — signed by either another registered Minnesota voter or by a notary public.

But Helmer said the witness need never see the actual ballot, maintaining voter confidentiality. Instead, the ballot is inserted into a security envelope which in turn is placed in an exterior envelope. It is that outer envelope that must be marked with voter ID information and a witness' signature.

The voter ID information is kept separate from the ballot when it comes time to count votes, so even election judges don't know how any particular individual voted.

If an absentee ballot has not been filled out appropriately, Helmer said staff from her office will notify the would-be voter and provide a replacement ballot, time permitting.

People who send their ballots through the U.S. Postal Service are advised to mail them at least five days ahead of time to ensure timely delivery.

But absentee ballots may also be delivered in person to a secure dropbox in the atrium of City Hall. They must be received by 8 p.m. on election day.

Helmer said individuals may also call the city clerk's office to arrange a time for curbside delivery of an absentee ballot after June 26 as well.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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