‘Such an incredible increase:' Early voting numbers soar across Minnesota

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So many people are voting by absentee ballot in Hennepin County that elections officials have to find a new way to look at the numbers.

“Usually we compare midterm [election] to midterm,” said Ginny Gelms, the elections manager. “We’ve seen such incredible increase in the amount of people voting absentee this year that we’re actually using the presidential election for comparison.”

The county is on track to match or exceed the number of absentee votes in the 2016 presidential election, Gelms said. As of Monday, 17,900 residents had turned in absentee ballots since voting started Sept. 21.

It’s not just in Hennepin County. Across Minnesota, voters have cast triple the number of absentee ballots as they had at this time in 2014, the most recent midterm election. The increase is rooted in multiple explanations but has political observers warning not to draw too many conclusions.

A high voter turnout has long been expected to benefit Democrats, because numerous polls have showed that party’s voters more enthusiastic than Republicans to vote this year. But a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll last week showed Republicans have matched Democrats’ enthusiasm in the wake of the battle to confirm new U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

“The question becomes, does this victory with Kavanaugh bring a sigh of relief to the base and say, ‘Ah, things are ok?’ And they go back into a relative complacency?” said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University.

Across Minnesota, 42,552 people had turned in ballots as of Oct. 4, according to numbers released by the Minnesota Secretary of State. That’s an increase of 235 percent from the 12,710 absentee ballots at this time in 2014.

Democrats said the strong numbers advantaged their party.

“We believe this benefits DFLers and echoes the strong turnout numbers Democrats posted in the August primary election,” said Charlene Briner, a DFL spokeswoman, in a Sunday email.

But there’s little evidence that shows early voting translates into more votes cast on Election Day, Schultz said. 

“This is where candidates need to be focused now. Not just in terms of getting their voters out early, like money in the bank – they’ve already voted – but convincing those last-minute deciders 'show up to vote and vote for me,'” Schultz said.

The absentee voting numbers may have multiple causes, Gelms said. She pointed to voter enthusiasm and that more voters are taking advantage of the state’s absentee voting law that allows people to vote early in-person or by mail.

“People are choosing to vote absentee more than they ever have before,” she said.

The deadline to pre-register to vote is Oct. 16, though Minnesotans can still register on the day of the election at their polling place.