Summer break lends weight to absentee ballots

Students in transit may forget to vote in Minnesota’s August primary.

James Nord

Absentee balloting for Minnesota’s August primary elections, which began Friday, holds newfound importance in state politics after a March law change, officials say.

The summer primary and a decades-long decline in turnout, coupled with more early voters, give extra weight to absentee balloting in Minnesota.

“With a history of close elections in Minnesota, absentee ballots become crucial in determining the winner,” Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said.

Absentee ballots helped decide the close race between Sen. Al Franken and Norm Coleman in 2008, Ritchie said.

In an effort to encourage voting, officials are stressing absentee ballots as an alternative, especially after the law change.

Students and others who are unsure if they’ll be able to vote on Aug. 10 can use absentee ballots, Ritchie said. His words are targeted at Minnesotans who aren’t used to an earlier primary and might neglect to vote because they’re on summer vacation.

Likewise, students are often focused on returning to school or are in transit in August, said David Schultz, a public policy professor at Hamline University who teaches election law.

Ritchie stressed that student input is important if they hope to have any say in government policy.

But younger people rarely vote in droves during primary elections, Schultz said.

Schultz said that when speaking to his students, he says, “There’s a reason why you’re poor and thirsty,” referring to current drinking age restrictions and declining government financial aid.

Although older voters outnumber students, primary turnout is low across the board, Schultz said. He estimated roughly 12 percent of eligible individuals will vote in the 2010 gubernatorial primaries in a May report. That’s down from about 31 percent in 1982.

Low turnout means that fewer votes will determine the election.

“Absentee voting could be hugely important,” Schultz said. “With such small numbers determining who’s going to win the primary … every vote matters.”

Nonetheless, the rate of voting absentee has increased in some cases, Ritchie said. In the 2008 general elections, almost 300,000 of the nearly 3 million Minnesota voters voted early.

About 20,000 Minnesotans voted absentee in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 primaries. Ritchie expects a similar number in 2010.

Nationally, about one-third of the electorate votes absentee in general elections, Schultz said.

Those interested in voting absentee in the Minnesota primaries can vote in person or by mail.

Applications are available on the secretary of state’s website or at a county auditor or municipal clerk’s office and can be returned by mail, e-mail, fax or in person. Applications are due Aug. 9.

Changes in administrative procedures and the design of the ballots will make absentee balloting easier and more accurate, Ritchie said.

“It’s especially important that students participate in this year’s election,” Ritchie said. “It will define the shape and direction of our state going forward, and students have a big role to play in that, and they should have a big voice in that.”