North Dakota did not set a record with voter turnout in June, but the mail-in primary had strong voter participation statewide despite the coronavirus pandemic.
With the ongoing uncertainty with COVID-19, election officials should consider a mail-in general election in November but look for ways to improve the process.
Burleigh County had a voter turnout of 30% for the June election, which was higher than the county saw in the last four primaries, said Erika White, county election specialist. White told Bismarck Tribune reporter Bilal Suleiman the county saw a lot of people who hadn’t voted in the last four election cycles.
The sales tax measure and contested city commission and school board races likely contributed to some of the voter interest.
Advantages of the mail system include protecting the safety of voters and election workers by preventing long lines and crowds on election day. Other advantages include giving people more time to review their ballot before casting their votes and giving election workers more time to process the ballots. Burleigh County said the June election was less chaotic than usual, with poll workers leaving earlier on election night.
In North Dakota, weather also can play a role in voter turnout, particularly for people in rural areas who may have to drive longer distances to polling places.
But if there is a mail-in general election, efforts need to be made to reach all populations, particularly Native Americans.
A report by the Native American Rights Fund outlined challenges to voting by mail for Native communities, including ballots delivered to post office boxes that are rarely checked and a general reluctance to vote by mail. The group cautioned against turning to all mail voting without opportunities to also safely vote in person.
State and county officials should spend time between now and November working to make it easier for tribal members to vote by mail. Groups such as North Dakota Native Vote did an excellent job on voter outreach, but the work should not fall only to them. Recommendations by the Native American Rights Fund include ensuring safe curbside voting and ballot drop boxes.
Another issue that needs to be addressed is how election officials handle mail-in ballots with questionable voter signatures. An ongoing lawsuit argues the state’s signature-matching process for absentee ballots is error-prone and voters who had their ballots rejected by election officials were never informed that their vote didn’t count.
A federal judge has not yet ruled on whether North Dakota’s law is constitutional. But for the June primary, he required the state to come up with a procedure so voters whose signatures are questioned are notified and they have a chance to verify their ballots. It’s an issue that has not affected a lot of ballots -- only 334 out of 95,562 absentee or mail-in ballots were rejected in the November 2018 election. But it’s an issue that needs to be resolved to protect the integrity of the elections while also giving voters a chance to verify their signatures.
A decision about how to conduct the November election should be made early so voters can plan, election workers can be trained and outreach efforts can be organized.
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