BISMARCK, N.D. (NDAC) – The June primary was historic. For the first time in state history, North Dakota voters cast their ballots by mail only. The number of voters in the primary nearly set a record.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Dakota county auditors quickly realized how this serious health issue would impact the June election. Two of their major concerns were ensuring the safety of the voters and poll workers along with finding citizens willing to be election workers amid the pandemic. With the health and well being of election workers and voters in mind, county auditors requested Governor Doug Burgum to issue an executive order for the June 9th election to be conducted by Vote-by-Mail only. The order was granted and provided each county with the authority to approve Vote-by-Mail. The order also waived the requirement for one polling location to be open on Election Day. All counties approved Vote-by-Mail. In addition, each county provided at least one secure ballot drop-box as an option for voters to deliver their ballot without paying postage.

Voters Turnout

The North Dakota Secretary of State mailed applications for ballots to active and inactive voters in the central voter file system. Voters were instructed to complete the application and mail it in a postage paid envelop to their county auditor. Counties mailed 196,088 ballots and 81.25% of the voters returned their ballots with 159,317 voters participating in the June election. 2012 remains the record voter turnout year for the June primary which had two contentious issues on the ballot.

“The statewide turnout was great,” praised McKenzie County Auditor Erica Johnsrud. “In McKenzie County, we were just a few votes shy of breaking our county voter turnout numbers for a primary election. I’m very impressed by the response of voters across the state.”

Following the Secretary of State’s mailing of applications for ballots, counties were overwhelmed by the number of applications returned. Numerous counties hired additional resources to assist in the processing of applications and fulfilling ballot packages.

Burleigh County Election Manager Erika White described the resources needed to process the applications. “It was a large undertaking, but our staff – election workers, and additional assistance from city and county offices – came together to ensure the voters of Burleigh County were able to vote. It was heartwarming to see the large number of voters participating in the election process.”

A week before the election, auditors worked with the Secretary of State’s Office to develop to execute a process to notify voters of signature problems with their ballots. In cases where voter’s signatures were mismatched on the application and ballot envelop or a signature was missing on the ballot envelope, voters were contacted and offered the opportunity to verify their signature.
Planning for the November Election

Even before the June 9th election, county auditors were thinking and planning for the November election.

“The June primary was unique. Our auditors were proactive and responsive to conducting an election during a pandemic that was totally unpredictable,” said Donnell Preskey Hushka who serves as executive director for the North Dakota County Auditors Association. “The health and wellbeing of voters and election workers continues to be a top priority for our auditors as they look ahead to the general election. The election may look and feel different, but auditors are working to make in-person voting a reality.”

“We are currently exploring alternative options for polling locations throughout Burleigh County,” said Burleigh County Election Manager Erika White. “Currently, we’re looking at larger locations that can provide social distancing for voters and election workers. We’re also working on procuring proper personal protection equipment (PPE) for election workers.”

McKenzie County Auditor Erica Johnsrud plans to use vote centers for in-person voting in November. “We have already begun purchasing tabletop sneeze shields for our election workers as well as purchasing additional hand sanitizer and other supplies as they become available. We have also already begun recruiting poll workers for the fall to make sure we have the needed staffing for Election Day.”

Educating voters on the options available to vote is key. Absentee voting is available in all counties, 33 counties have Vote-by-Mail available with at least one polling location open on Election Day and eight counties have early voting.

Cass County Finance Director Mike Montplaisir says, “We may have fewer polling sites so we can provide better protection for our election workers and our voters. We may end up using early voting centers for a longer period and run Election Day much like we have operated early voting centers in the past. We are also exploring the use of an app that can provide voters with a map of polling sites with wait time incorporated.”

“Counties are evaluating the voting options they provide. Expect to see more counties approve Vote-by-Mail, add early voting options and move polling locations to larger facilities where they can adequately social distance,” commented Preskey.

Despite all the planning, auditors recognize the election is dependent on citizens willing to work the election. If COVID-19 continues to loom with public concern, finding poll workers could be one of the greatest challenges for our counties.

“Over half of our election workers are over the age of 75 and in the most vulnerable age group during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the election workers contacted our office prior to shifting to Vote-by-Mail and stated they do not want to work out of fear of contracting the virus,” stated White.

There were a lot of firsts for this June election, including the use of new election equipment. The Legislature in 2019 approved funding for statewide election equipment. This included funding for every county to obtain a DS450, which is a central ballot scanner. It is more efficient, accurate and user-friendly than scanners used in prior elections.

“The DS450 (pictured) was vital in making the election a success. Our counties thank legislators for investing in our elections,” said Preskey.

In McKenzie County, for example, the new equipment was able to process approximately 1100 ballots in 30 minutes; compared to the four hours it would have taken the prior equipment to process the same number of ballots.

This saved valuable time when reporting results on election night, which is one of the reasons North Dakotans saw results early in the evening June 9th. The new equipment also made it much easier to canvass write-in votes, also improving the election night process.

Johnsrud continued, “With the new equipment the previous concerns regarding election equipment failures were greatly minimized, which allowed us to focus on tabulation of ballots and timely results reporting.”

The June primary was a success in North Dakota amid a global pandemic. The credit goes to voters, county auditors and their staff, Governor Burgum, and the Secretary of State’s Office. Major credit also goes to legislators, for providing funding for key equipment to help our local election officials do their job with certainty, which allowed North Dakotans to see results in a very timely manner and provide confidence in our election system.

The news release was submitted to the media via of the North Dakota Association of Counties.