As the Aug. 11 Primary Election approaches, readers have asked questions about absentee ballots and voting by mail.

The Echo Press summarized the questions and sent them to Vicki Doehling, Douglas County elections administrator. She provided the following insights.

Q. Are absentee ballot applications and voting by mail the same thing?

No. Technically, a mail ballot is a ballot that is automatically mailed (by non-forwardable mail) to all registered voters in a mail ballot precinct and the ballot can only be mailed to the address that is associated with the person’s voter record.

Absentee ballots are issued to registered or non-registered voters that request an absentee ballot by completing an application requesting to have their ballot mailed to an address of their choice, whether that be their home or another address if they’re temporarily away. Absentee voters may also vote in-person at the county auditor-treasurer’s office prior to election day.

Q. Is mail-in voting allowed county-wide or just in certain townships?

Mail balloting was not adopted countywide in Douglas County. This year (due to COVID-19), nine townships and one city chose to adopt mail balloting as their voting method. The 10 precincts are: Alexandria Township, Belle River Township, Brandon Township, Hudson Township, Ida Township, LaGrand Township, Lund Township, Moe Township, Spruce Hill Township and the City of Millerville.

However, absentee voting is also a form of voting by mail and is available to all voters in all precincts throughout the county.

Q. Do I have to vote by mail or can I just go to the polls and vote like I used to?

Voters in mail ballot precincts will not be able to vote at their normal polling place. The mail ballot polling place in Douglas County designated for the 2020 election is the former First Lutheran Church building located at 822 Douglas Street in Alexandria. Voters are to use the West entrance off of the Cedar Street parking lot.

Non-registered voters in mail ballot precincts will not automatically receive a ballot in the mail and therefore are allowed to vote at the mail ballot polling place. Since pre-registered voters in the 10 mail ballot precincts received a ballot in the mail, they are to vote using that ballot if they intend to vote in that election.

Mail ballot voters can either mail or hand-deliver their ballot to the county auditor’s office on or before Election Day. However, if a voter erroneously threw away their mail ballot, they will be allowed to vote at the mail ballot polling place – or can contact the county auditor-treasurer’s office to request a replacement ballot.

Q. On Primary Election Day, if a voter "crosses over" and votes for candidates from different parties, the ballot machine will reject the ballot, and the voter will be allowed to revote. How does that work with mail-in ballots?

When mail ballots (and absentee ballots) are processed by the county ballot board, the ballots are first separated from the voter’s signature envelope to protect the privacy of their ballot. When all the absentee and mail ballots are fed through the tabulator, the ballot board members do not know which ballot belongs to which voter. Therefore, if a mail or absentee ballot contains cross-over votes (votes in more than one political party column), then that ballot is still processed, but the tabulator will not assign their votes to any one party or candidate.

In effect, their ballot counts toward the number of ballots accepted for that precinct, but the candidate votes do not count since the voter did not follow the instructions printed at the top of the ballot indicating they can only vote for candidates of one political party.

Q. Mail-in ballots must be signed by a witness. Are there any checks and balances to make sure the witness is legitimate? And what are the timelines to return a ballot?

In prior years, it was statutory for all absentee and mail ballot voters to sign their return/signature envelope in the presence of a witness (registered voter in Minnesota) in order for it to be accepted by the ballot board.

At the time of the May 13 deadline for our local city/township boards to make their mail balloting decision, that statutory witness requirement was still in effect. However, a recent court order (LaRose vs. Simon) waived the witness requirement just for registered voters casting an absentee or mail ballot in the 2020 State Primary and extended the period of time for voters to submit acceptable absentee ballots.

For the upcoming Primary Election on Aug. 11, acceptable absentee/mail ballots must be postmarked on or before Aug. 11, AND received by the county auditor’s office no later than two days following the election in order to be accepted and counted.

Absentee ballots for non-registered voters still require a witness signature in order for the ballot to be accepted and counted. The instructions to non-registered voters clearly state that a witness is required and that the witness can be anyone who is registered to vote in Minnesota, including their spouse or relative, or a notary public, or a person with the authority to administer oaths.

Q. What happens if someone has five college students living at his address and he receives their ballot applications in the mail – is there anything that would stop him from filling in all five ballots?

All mail ballot and absentee ballot voters can track their ballot at www.mnvotes.org and see when their ballot was mailed out to them, when it was received by the county auditor, and if it was accepted or rejected. If anyone notices their mail ballot or absentee ballot has a status of “received/accepted” by the county auditor, and they believe they did not cast that ballot, the voter should report that immediately to the county auditor-treasurer’s office and an investigation would occur.

Q. Are there any other common questions you've been getting?

It’s very important that voters keep their voter record current and updated anytime they change their name or move to a new address. Voters can verify their current voter registration status from home at www.mnvotes.org as well as update their registration, view their sample ballot, and request an absentee ballot if desired. Otherwise, they may contact their local county auditor to learn more about the voter registration and absentee or mail ballot process.

I understand the frustrations and concerns some are feeling toward the mail balloting and absentee balloting process. Please understand the decision to consider or adopt mail balloting was not taken lightly by the local city/township boards. If it were not for the COVID-19 pandemic, the 10 mail precincts would have retained voting at their normal polling places. However, they had to consider such things as health concerns for their elderly poll workers, social distancing requirements and complying with those requirements given the space limitations of their polling places.

Trust me, mail balloting is not the easiest way to administer this election. The staff of the Douglas County Auditor-Treasurer Office, in cooperation with all the cities and townships in our county, are working very hard and doing their everything we can to ensure the integrity of the 2020 election is protected.