HIBBING — Election officials on the Iron Range are adapting to a federal appeals court ruling that mailed absentee ballots statewide must be received by Tuesday, Nov. 3.
In Hibbing, Candie Seppala, senior executive assistant, has been fielding questions from citizens about absentee voting and ensuring the 60 election judges and 30 student judges and helpers were up-to-date on the recent ruling that cut a weeklong window of voting.
“I feel like we’re a well-oiled machine,” Seppala told the Mesabi Tribune on Saturday as people came to vote or hand-deliver their ballots at Hibbing City Hall. “There might be little things that come up where we have to adapt to changes.”
It was after a Republican challenge when a panel of the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Thursday ordered in a 2-1 ruling that all mail-in ballots received Tuesday night be set aside.
Secretary of State Steve Simon told the media that about 2 million Minnesotans had requested absentee ballots with the idea their votes would count if they postmarked them by Election Day. At least 399,000 voters had requested ballots but not yet returned them.
Simon advised citizens to vote in-person, by absentee at county offices on Saturday or county or city locations on Monday. Or, he added, people can hand-deliver their ballots 3 p.m. on Tuesday.
Meantime, the St. Louis County Auditor urged residents “who planned to vote by mail, who has not yet done so, to instead hand deliver their ballot to ensure it is received in time to be counted.” The county estimated there were 10,000 ballots that had been sent out but not received.
City Clerk-Treasurer Mary Ann Kepler posted information onto Hibbing’s website and public service announcements on the Midwest Communications radio stations to announce the recent changes.
The city recorded a total of 8,154 residents, or 89.37 of all registered, cast their votes either in-person or by absentee ballots for the 2016 presidential election, Seppala noted. This time around, 9,569 residents registered to vote for the 2020 election.
The number of residents who voted absentee has more than doubled from fours years ago, from 1,250 to 3,910, as of Tuesday. City officials are expecting even more absentee ballots to be returned in the upcoming days, as well as a larger turnout in total votes cast.
Seppala and Kepler continued to work over the weekend as they are leading a team of city staff, election judges, students judges and helpers in readying seven polling places.
Seppala, who has worked with the city for 27 years, is in charge of hiring, scheduling and training the staff and working at the Greyhound Bus Museum precinct come Election Day. Kepler, who has two decades with the city, plays a key role in administering the election.
The election is being held at a time when the coronavirus has been rapidly spreading throughout St. Louis County.
As of Saturday morning, the county had recorded 3,373 cases and 75 deaths. Though cases remain in Duluth, the virus has traveled north and infiltrated Iron Range cities. Hibbing, the hardest hit in the area, had 237 cases that morning.
The city implemented rules for COVID-19 to include mask-wearing of judges and voters and for staff to use sanitizer sprays when wiping booths between votes. “We have plexiglass on the tables between the judges and the voters,” Seppala and Kepler wrote. “We have social distancing signs and taped areas for the voters to be distanced.”
Across the state, election officials — overseeing 30,000 judges at 3,000 polling places — have been working with law enforcement to keep the polling places safe from intimidation. Simon said last month that state election rules do not allow private security or related groups from entering polling places. Only one challenger per major political party can enter the places, while anyone who is not working at the polls must remain 100 feet away.
The city has been working with the Hibbing Police Department to ensure the safety of voters. Kepler noted that “we feel our polling places are safe for both the voters and the judges.” She added, “Safety is very important, and the measures we are taking are as safe as if our own mothers are working at the polls.”
Seppala and Kepler managed to recruit city staff from the Clerk’s Office, Administration, Library, Public Works, City Services (Parks & Recreation and Memorial Building), Building and Housing, Assessing and the Police Department.
They have also recruited a total of 90 judges and student judges and helpers. “This year I was able to recruit more judges than any other year,” Seppala wrote. “A lot of people stepped up and called me because they were worried some judges wouldn’t be able to be an election judge due to their age or underlying conditions with Covid. I had a lot of phone calls saying how excited they were to become judges.”
The staff include citizens of all ages. The helpers have been trained to sanitize the election booths — 11 DS200 Ballot Counting Machines purchased in 2018. The judges from all political backgrounds have all gone through at least two hours of training. (Judges are paid between $10-10.50 an hour.)
In its recruitment efforts, the city reached out to high school teachers and coaches who sent recruitment inquiries to the local student council, key club and sports teams, asking for help. The Junior City Council had committed to helping out as well. “We have a lot of those members helping us out,” Seppala and Kepler wrote. “So you can see, this is a community collaboration with people of all ages who help us make sure we are successfully staffed. We could not hold an election without all of these people involved.”
In a non-Covid year, the cost of running the local election runs about $40,000. “This year, we have already seen an increase due the added Presidential Nomination Primary Election in March, the cost of personal protective equipment, and larger staffing measures,” Seppala and Kepler wrote. She added that the money pays for “salaries, training of staff and judges, supplies, newspaper advertisements, travel for training, and machine maintenance.”