By Anna Jauhola
While mail-in voting has been the norm for most of Kittson County for many years, the coronavirus pandemic may push this rural area toward all absentee ballots.
The county commissioners discussed voting in this social distancing age during their meeting on Tuesday, May 12 and how it will affect people going to the polls in August and November. Minnesota will hold its primary election in August.
Currently, only the residents of Hallock and Karlstad have physical polling places. According to the Minnesota Secretary of State website, “all non-metropolitan townships and cities with less than 400 registered voters … can choose to hold elections by mail.”
County Administrator Eric Christensen said it will be difficult to keep each polling place sanitized between voters.
“I think the route to go here is to do a mass mailing to the Hallock and Karlstad voters of absentee ballot applications,” Christensen said. “See if we can’t encourage as many of those people to apply for a ballot and vote that way. Basically turn the two precincts into defacto mail-in ballot precincts.”
Commissioner Corey Wikstrom represents the Karlstad precinct. He agrees with mailing out absentee ballot applications to have fewer people at the polling locations later this year.
“If we do a mail-in for Hallock and Karlstad, you still have to offer the walk-in election. And it costs the same, right?” asked Commissioner Loren Younggren, who represents the city of Hallock.
Christensen said that’s correct and that if fewer people vote at the polls this year it will be easier for election judges to maintain a clean space.
“The judges in Hallock and Karlstad might be bored out of their minds, but they’ll be a lot safer for having less traffic walking through,” he added. “Honestly, I think that’s better because if the coronavirus is still around, I think we’ll have a problem finding election judges.”
Right now, the county shares the cost with Hallock and Karlstad to have the two polling places, maintain the ballot machines and hire judges for each election.
If, in the future, those precincts were able to switch to mail-in ballots only, they would eliminate the need and cost of both machines and judges. Christensen has advocated for full absentee voting for Kittson County over the last four years, one reason being the cost-savings of not having to set up polling locations.
He said the Association of Minnesota Counties has suggested a temporary rule change to allow full mail-in balloting as well, but many in the Legislature have not warmed to that idea.
So for now, the polling places will remain, but the county is encouraging voters in the Karlstad and Hallock precincts to submit applications for absentee ballots.
They can also fill out an application on the Minnesota Secretary of State website at sos.state.mn.us/elections-voting.
In other business, the commission:
• Received a National Association of Counties (NACO) scholarship for one employee to attend a leadership academy online course. The course costs $1,995 and NACO will cover $1,500 of that cost. The commissioners voted 4-1 to pay the balance of $495 of a participant, should there be any interest. Commissioner Darrel Johnson voted against the motion.
• Heard that health insurance for county employees will increase by 11.9 percent.
• Approved a tax abatement for the city of Kennedy, which incorrectly assessed a town property for $500 on the 2019 taxes. This will be removed because the property was in compliance with town codes and mistakenly assessed the amount.
• Heard from Christensen how the courthouse staff is working to reopen the courthouse to the public, when the time comes. He said each office has plexiglass dividers on the counters, a permanent dropbox is installed outside the southwest door (No. 7), all employees have been issued cloth masks, hand sanitizer and stations have been ordered for entrances and water fountains will be decommissioned. Doors to each office will be closed and staff will have customers wait in the hall on properly distanced chairs. Appointments will be encouraged. Custodian Victor Camacho will keep common surfaces wiped down throughout the building.
• Rescheduled the tax forfeit sale that was set for this month. The sale will now be at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, June 17. It will be held outside the courthouse and if it rains, the sale will take place in the county highway shop in Hallock.
The next county commission meeting will be at 9 a.m., Tuesday, May 19 and it will take place at the courthouse in the upstairs meeting room. This will allow for social distancing. Anyone from the public who wishes to attend, but is uncomfortable being there in person can access the meeting online. Christensen said he will post the link on the county’s website co.kittson.mn.us.
By Anna Jauhola