Election 2020

Don’t let COVID-19 stop your vote. Here’s how to vote by mail in Minnesota

A man wearing a face mask talks to a person in a car.
Election official Jeff Caldwell (right) collects absentee ballots from voters on Aug. 11 outside Minneapolis Elections and Voter Services in Minneapolis.
Tom Baker for MPR News file

Updated: Oct. 29 | Posted: July 17

As the nation heads toward its first pandemic-era presidential election, many voters are weighing their options to vote as safely as possible to minimize the virus risk. One of the popular options is voting early by mail.

In August, more than 500,000 Minnesotans voted by mail for the primary election. As of Oct. 23, with less than two weeks left until Election Day, more than 1.7 million absentee ballots have been requested. So far, 1,186,522 ballots have been turned in and marked accepted.

If you have cast your ballot via mail or are considering doing so this November, you may have a series of questions about the process. Here’s a rundown of how to vote by mail in Minnesota’s November general election and answers to some frequently asked questions about voting by mail.

Step 1) Register (if you haven’t already) 

Registering first isn’t required to cast an absentee ballot, but state elections officials say it makes the process easier.

In Minnesota, you can register to vote or update your registration online if you have a Minnesota driver’s license or state identification card. If not, you still can download a paper application you can mail in or drop off at your county election office. Applications are available in 12 languages and Braille. 

If you have moved, changed your name or haven’t voted for more than four years after registering, you need to update your registration by filling out a new registration application. You can check if you’re currently registered to vote in Minnesota via the Secretary of State’s website.

The last day you can register online or by paper application in the Nov. 3 general election is Tuesday, Oct. 13. If you miss the window, you can still register in person when you vote early or on Election Day at your polling place.

Step 2) Request an absentee ballot

Eligible Minnesota voters can get an absentee ballot for any reason. Even if you simply don’t want to go to the polls — like if there’s a deadly respiratory virus spreading throughout the state — you can get an absentee ballot. People can apply for a ballot anytime before Election Day and the application is available on the Secretary of State’s website

Step 3) Vote and sign the envelope

Once you receive your absentee ballot by mail, check if both sides of the ballot paper are printed correctly and make sure your absentee ballot package has a ballot and three envelopes: a tan ballot envelope, a white signature envelope and a white return envelope.

Then, mark your ballot, put it in the tan ballot envelope and seal the envelope. On the white signature envelope, write your name, address and ID number, sign the envelope and put it inside the return envelope.

For the Nov. 3 election, registered voters don’t need to have a witness to sign on the signature envelope. If you’re not registered, you will still need a witness to sign on the signature envelope. The witness can be another registered Minnesota voter or a notary.

Step 4) Turn in your ballot on time

You can return your ballot simply by mail or any package delivery service. Your ballot must be received by your county election office by Election Day to get counted. A federal appeals court Thursday ruled that election officials must set aside any ballots that arrive after Election Day, in case a future order makes those votes invalid.

With only a few days to go until Election Day, the Secretary of State’s office now advises voters to drop off their absentee ballots in person if ballots haven’t been returned.

So make sure to allow sufficient time for your ballot to ship. You can check if your ballot has been received on the Secretary of State’s website. If you’re up against the clock, you can return your ballot in person by 3 p.m. on Election Day. Remember, you should drop off your ballot at the election office that originally sent it, not at the polling place.

If you’re asking someone else to return your ballot in person, or if you’re doing so for others, the person who’s dropping off ballots can return ballots for up to three other voters and needs to show identification with name and signature when turning in those ballots.

People in certain circumstances, like if they’re hospitalized or living in a nursing home, can request to have an agent pick up their ballot and return it on their behalf.

Your questions on voting by mail, answered

When does my ballot get counted?

To answer this question, we need to first clarify what “counting” means in the voting-by-mail process.

When ballots are received by a county election office, election officials log the number of ballots submitted, and check whether voter information on the signature envelope is correct. Ballots will remain sealed in the signature and the tan secrecy envelopes at this point.

On the night of the 14th day before the election, ballots will be taken out of the signature and secrecy envelopes and processed. Canceling ballots is no longer available from this point on.

After polls closed at 8 p.m. on Election Day, ballots are tallied.

What if I change my mind after submitting my ballot?

Don’t worry, in Minnesota you can cancel your absentee ballot. To do that, contact the local election office that sent your ballot. After they cancel your ballot, you can submit a new absentee ballot early by mail, or cast your ballot in person early or on Election Day.

But remember, you can only cancel your early ballot up to two weeks before Election Day.

I voted by mail in the primary. Should I apply again for an absentee ballot in the November election?

When you apply for an absentee ballot, either online or via the paper application, there’s an option to select a ballot only for the primary, only for the November general election, or for both elections.

If you checked the box for applying for both the primary and general elections on your primary absentee ballot application, you don’t need to apply again for an absentee ballot in the Nov. 3 election. However, if you only applied for the primary ballot, you will need to fill out a separate application for the general election.

Not sure whether you have applied for both? You can use an online ballot lookup tool on the Secretary of State’s website to check which ballot you requested and where your ballot is in the process.

I applied for an absentee ballot but haven’t received my ballot package yet. When will I receive my ballot?

Once your application is received and processed by your local election office, your ballot will be sent to you at least 46 days before Election Day — so by Sept. 18, which is also when early voting starts. If you apply after Sept. 18, your ballot materials will be mailed after the application is received and processed.

I lost my ballot material. What can I do?

Contact your county election office, and they will send you a replacement ballot in person or by mail. The election official will cancel your original ballot. Do not return your original ballot, even if you eventually find or receive it — since it’s already canceled.

What if I no longer want to vote by mail after receiving my absentee ballot? Can I still go vote in person early or on Election Day?

As long as your ballot hasn’t been processed by your election officials, you may still cast a ballot in person by voting in your polling place on Election Day or at your local early voting location. You can track the status of your ballot to see if it’s been received by election officials.

After voting in person, the unique ballot ID number on your original absentee ballot will be invalidated, so that if it is returned to the election office, officials will not count it.

If you plan on voting in person, do not bring your absentee ballot with you. Your election official will provide you with a new ballot to complete that day.

I forgot which ID number I used on my absentee ballot application. How can I find that information?

On the white signature envelope, you should put the same ID number you used on your absentee ballot application. In any case where your ballot can’t be verified, election officials will contact you to fix your ballot.

If you don’t remember which ID number you used, don’t worry. Election officials have access to past voter registration information, so they may be able to verify your identity using other means. You can also contact your local election office to ask if they can assist with finding out which ID number is on your application.

Can I put more than one ID number on my application and the signature envelope?

While it’s not a requirement, you can put both the last four digits of your Social Security number and your driver’s license number (or your state ID number) on your absentee ballot application. The Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office says it’s a good way to avoid having to remember which one you used.

Can I use a pencil to mark my ballot?

No, you must complete your ballot with a pen, with black or blue ink.

Is there postage due on my absentee ballot?

Postage is paid both ways. No additional postage is required.

Can I send the ballot in a hand-addressed and stamped envelope? I lost the postage paid envelope.

While it’s best to reach out to your county election office to get your return envelope, the Secretary of State’s office says you may return your ballot in a hand-addressed and stamped envelope.

I have a mail forwarding service set up. Will my absentee ballot be forwarded like other mail?

Yes, but it would be more efficient to add a mailing address to your application.

How is my ballot kept safe and secure until the election night?  

Once your ballot arrives and received by your county election office, it will be stored in locked cabinets or safes or behind several office doors that are not accessible by anyone but authorized election officials. So it would be extremely difficult for your ballot to be stolen.

If your ballot were somehow damaged or stolen while still with the signature envelope, election officials would contact you to let you know about that and help you redo your vote by mail or in person.

Here’s an example from the Secretary of State’s Office of how ballots are securely stored after being submitted in Anoka County:

In Anoka County, there are cameras in the hallway and all doors exiting/entering the Anoka County Government Center. Ballots are behind two locked doors, with a log of who went in and out by key fob and only certified by the Secretary of State in elections division — election officials are allowed to access them and it is always two election officials who have to go together to file them or to retrieve them for whatever is necessary.

Absentee ballots are usually only “touched” twice, once to accept them then file them and second to open them during the ballot board process. Absentee ballots are not to be handled by several people — only people who have had the proper training and have signed an oath to protect them at all costs.

Have other questions about voting early by mail in Minnesota this year? #AskMPRNews!

Correction (July 17, 2020): Previously, this story and the video incorrectly said absentee ballot cancellation can be done up to a week before Election Day. Cancellation is available up to two weeks before Election Day.

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