Primary Election Q&A with ND Secretary of State, Al Jaeger
During this June’s primary election, voters will be putting forward state candidates for the November general election. History shows that primary elections have low voter turnout because it is perceived their vote has minimal value. This year, due to the pandemic - the process faced a change. Executive Orders 202013 and 202019, issued by Governor Burgum waived the mandate for physical voting locations and authorizes 100% voting by mail-in ballot. Fifty-three counties altered their process, some not having an absentee ballot process in place, to allow for a mail-in format. In a time of social distancing, this provides North Dakotans with the ability to participate in the primary elections, while maintaining safety protocols.
To better understand the impacts of this change on our state, GNDC's CEO and President, Arik Spencer visited with Secretary of State Al Jaeger. We wanted to know how changes were impacting turnout and could impact results.
GNDC: You have held the position since January 1993, how does this election differ from any of the others that you have overseen?
Secretary Jaeger: I am reluctant to call it a true primary election. It is the general election for the city, the school district, and park boards. The voter turnout should be as high as it is in November because of the things that are on the ballot. Obviously this one is a little bit different in the sense that there are no polling locations open tomorrow. Those were decisions that needed to be made early on by the way the executive order of the governor was crafted. It bestowed county option to have a polling location if they vote by mail but all 53 counties voted to not have a polling location open. This number will change throughout the next day, but right now there are 194,775 ballots that have been requested and sent out, of which 125,421 have been returned already. So the process is different compared to previous elections. But one thing that is vastly different is the number of people responding. Of the last 5 election cycles, the only time 175,000 ballots were cast was the 2012 June election. What was a little off about that election is there were four measures on the ballots, three of them were kind of controversial (UND nickname, property tax, and religious freedom). If all 194,000 ballots are returned it will easily have defeated the 2012 turnout. The average turn out of the other four remaining elections was between 112,000 to 113,000. It is good to see people are responding for whatever reason that’s prompting them to respond.
What were some of the biggest challenges your office faced transitioning to mail-in ballots or what were maybe some pleasant surprises?
Keep in mind that 33 counties were already doing vote by mail, they already had the procedures in place. So there were only 20 counties that never had mail in before. Because of the law, it was approached that application forms were automatically sent out to people who have voted in previous elections. The database had a list of 600,000 names, obviously not matching the state population - there are not that many voters. This list needed to be vetted, cleaned, purged so it was decided that an application was sent to every name listed. This created a few impacts. Applications were not forwarded by the US Postal Service, they were to be returned. This brought back 100,000 applications - young adults no longer living at parents' address, those who moved, some deceased, etc. People have expressed concern about applications being received when those people are not at the address or are deceased. The checks and balances in the system are that to apply for a ballot, there are certain types of information required of a voter, info not privy to other people.
What I find interesting despite what I think has been heavy public awareness about the election's format is that there are still people who know an election is coming and are expecting to go to a polling location to vote. There are people who feel that this is a bad decision to not have in-person voting. They can go to the grocery store, why can’t they go to vote. The election process doesn’t happen overnight. There is a lot of planning and training involved.
With uncertainty due to COVID-19, do you think the trend of voting by mail will continue into the November election?
A certain segment of the population definitely wants to go to the polls. I would suspect right now, depending on what happens, there will be polls open in November. Whether there continues to be voting by mail depends on the counties. There is some speculation that people who have never done absentee voting before have found it rather convenient. Come Fall, even if things turn somewhat to normal, I think there is some speculation that the number of people that vote early will be somewhat higher. Right now and in previous elections, counties can have vote centers open up to two weeks prior to the election day. Typically, a third of the vote has been cast before election day. My guess would be in November that is going to be a higher percentage. I think we will always have polling locations, I do not think that is going away, at least not in the foreseeable future. We will see what happens. On a different thought here, whether the results will be known Tuesday night as they traditionally have been, that remains to be seen. Counties could have begun counting ballots last Wednesday. But there are still a lot of ballots that need to be counted.
For most of the state can you expect to see the results about the same time that they typically would on election night?
I would suspect that counties that have had the mail-in process before and/or where we have less population will see results posted on election night. However, they cannot start reporting before 7:00pm on Tuesday, even though the ballots began running through tabulators last Wednesday. The results will not be reported on our system until 8:00pm.
Do you have any closing thoughts?
I think the media, has caught a lot of us off guard to some extent. In the last week, 80,000 to 90,000 ballots were returned. Ads and media are still just starting to share information about candidates; this is actually a week or two too late. The timeline matches previous years, when we have a polling location open. But in this particular situation with polling locations closed, it probably should been done earlier. Because of postmarked requirements, decisions have already needed to be made, There are a lot of expenditures being made on campaigns when ballots have already been returned.
Finally, I want to address election officials on the front line, who are working very hard. I applaud them for what they have done this season.