County, state and party officials across North Dakota were monitoring the June 9 primary election process with at least a partial eye to the November general election.
The primary could be a good test of how to run a statewide election with mail-only balloting, with lessons learned on smoothing and clarifying the process. While several auditors said they’re expecting business as usual in November, the primary experience could cause more people to vote by mail then because of its convenience, they said.
“I would hope the secretary of state has learned something about the voter lists they’re using for sending out ballot applications,” said Kylie Oversen, who chairs the state Democratic NPL Party. There have been occasional problems, she said, with ballot applications sent to people who have moved from the state or who are deceased.
Applications also have gone out to some non-citizens, who could get into serious trouble if they fill out and return the applications. “You get this official letter, and it looks like something the government wants you to do,” Oversen said. “But that could put them in legal trouble. They could be deported for that.”
There have been no announcements yet regarding voting in the general election, but Oversen said she expects there will be more opportunities for mail-in balloting then, too – especially if there is a COVID-19 flareup in the fall.
Counties could work on a few other problems that have popped up around the state, including voters unsure how much postage to affix to ballot envelopes or where to find ballot drop-off locations.
Auditors across the state were expecting similar or higher voter participation in the June primary and local elections, despite the closure of in-person polling locations.
Gov. Doug Burgum signed an executive order in March allowing counties to opt out of in-person polling during the June elections due to coronavirus concerns. By April, every county commission had authorized voting by mail only.
Several counties reported receiving record numbers of mail-in ballot requests after the state sent out applications. In Morton County, Auditor Dawn Rhone said she processed nearly three times the number of absentee ballots the county had seen in the past. Morton County sent out 8,242 ballots and received more than 4,000 back as of June 2.
“I’m just worried, I wonder if we’re gonna have a higher rate of unreturned ballots,” Rhone said then. “We only have half of them back right now.”
For rural counties such as Grant, Auditor Sara Meier said she believes mail-only balloting will cause more people to apply for an absentee ballot in the future, rather than driving to one of few polling locations in the county. Grant County, which has 1,430 voters who participated in recent elections, had responded to 1,050 ballot applications for the June election.
In recent years, states such as Washington and Utah have reported an increase in voter turnout in elections with all mail-in voting. Mail-in voting allows voters to take more time in reviewing their ballot before submitting it and reduces some expenses for staff and equipment at polling locations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
However, it can drive up printing and postage expenses, especially if voters do not return their ballots. Voters could request a ballot for the November general election with the application most recently sent out, and Rhone said she worries voters will receive the absentee ballot, but still choose to vote in-person, creating higher postage expenses than necessary.
County auditors across the state said so far, there have been few problems with distributing or receiving mail-in ballots. For many, such as Auditor Kandy Christopherson in Ramsey County, voting by mail has been available since 2008, making the transition this cycle easier.
The NCSL also reported other disadvantages, including loss of tradition, opportunities for coercion from family members or an increase in voter error, and disparate effects on populations such as Native Americans, who often do not have street addresses when living on reservations.
Wes Davis, who chairs the North Dakota Native Vote Board, said Native American communities in the state have felt these effects. For some of the state’s rural reservations, the nearest post office is 30 to 40 miles away.
Davis said due to the pandemic and subsequent economic issues, many living on reservations are also in “survival mode,” and voting or researching different candidates is not a top priority.
North Dakota Native Vote has worked to motivate voters through face-to-face interaction with elders, assistance in filling out applications and ballots, and outreach efforts on social media. Davis said as November approaches, they will continue these efforts to encourage voters to participate in the general election, especially amid movements to fight systemic racism.
“It might have to be old school, where we go to their homes or give them a phone call,” Davis said. “Even though we’re in crisis, I want them to still vote, so we’ll be using different types of tactics to get people inspired to vote.”
At a national level, voting by mail has come into question due to concerns of voter fraud. While 46 states currently offer some form of mail-in voting with bipartisan support, President Donald Trump and others have expressed concerns about the process becoming fraudulent.
County auditors in North Dakota say there is little chance of voter fraud with the mail-in process and procedures in their offices. “There are so many things that we have to do with going through this office that the chances of someone voting twice are slim to none because of the voting system that we use,” Christopherson said.
Oversen said she believes discussions about voter fraud are a fear tactic. She said she anticipates a much larger voter turnout across the state due to the convenience in voting from home.
Representatives from the North Dakota Republican Party did not respond to requests for comment on the issue of voting by mail.