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Our View: Fix law to ensure every vote counts

The main-party candidates in Tuesday's special election for Minnesota Senate District 11 agree on this: All votes need to be counted.

But that didn't happen last month in the DFL primary for their race, and it's likely to not happen Tuesday, according to Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon.

After the News Tribune reported that more than 400 mail-in ballots from rural areas didn't arrive in time to be counted in the Jan. 22 primary, Simon tweeted that, "Hundreds of MN voters may be disenfranchised ... because of an outdated state law."

It's a law that needs to be changed and updated and modernized. Clearly. Our commitment to fair and inclusive elections dictates that voters in mail-only precincts get their ballots in a timely manner and with enough time to return them so they can be tallied along with others cast on election day. The law now, requiring a special election within just 35 days of a vacancy, presents too tight a timeframe, especially in more-rural districts — and especially with slower mail service nowadays caused by the closures in recent years of even not-so-rural post offices.

"'Pretty please ask the governor's office to go to 45 days,'" Senate District 11 Republican candidate Rep. Jason Rarick said he told Simon in the wake of the primary. "Maybe for some metro districts, you can leave it how it is, but for rural districts that have mail-in ballots, and where the mail can sometimes take three or four days to get to you and then (a similar number of days) to get back, the time has to be extended.

"This special election exposed a problem that I'm not sure anyone was necessarily aware of," Rarick said in an interview late last month with the News Tribune Editorial Board. "Everybody's vote should be counted."

The DFL candidate in District 11 — which is west of Duluth and covers Carlton and Pine counties as well as small parts of St. Louis and Kanabec counties — doesn't have to envision the problem.

"I live in a mail-only precinct, my whole family does, (and) with the time that we need to turn (our ballots) around, (the present time frame) is not doable," Stu Lourey said in a separate interview with the editorial board. "I think, fundamentally, every vote needs to be counted, right? That's basic. ... (There needs to be) more time, and I think there are other options, too, that can make it easier for folks."

Another fix, Lourey said, is allowing mail-in voters to take their ballots to the nearest polling place if they suspect they wouldn't be able to mail it in time. The current law requires ballots to be driven to and delivered to the county seat.

"When you have a county as big as Pine County, the county seat is 60 miles from my house. So it's like, 'Really, I can't just drive it to Moose Lake and have them make sure it finds its way (to being counted)?' ... We need a legislative fix."

Encouragingly, a fix already is in the works. In a Jan. 29 statement, Simon said he is working with the Legislature, which currently is in session.

"This is a bad situation and I trust the Legislature is going to make necessary changes to prevent this from happening again," Simon said.

Lawmakers can act quickly to ensure that every vote counts — and every vote gets counted.

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