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Ward County Commission affirms mail-ballot election

Commissioners affirm decision for mail balloting

Jill Schramm/MDN Ward County Auditor stands next to trays of ballot applications to be processed in her office May 5.

The Ward County Commission affirmed on Wednesday its decision to conduct the June 9 election entirely with mail ballots after considering a voter’s request for a polling place.

Although commissioners showed interest in opening a polling place, they determined that, with less than two weeks before the election, setting up a poll may be logistically impossible.

“If there’s one hiccup, it’s not going to happen,” Commissioner Alan Walter said. “We will go through all the motions and won’t be able to accomplish anything.”

Gov. Doug Burgum, by executive order, gave counties the option to conduct all-mail elections. All counties chose to do so. The Ward County Commission voted 3-2 on April 7 to conduct an all-mail-ballot election.

Travis Zablotney of Minot asked the commission to consider establishing a polling place. He cited the public concern about feeling disenfranchised and the risk of fraud, noting deceased individuals have been sent ballot applications that could be used fraudulantly.

Jill Schramm/MDN Travis Zablotney addresses the Ward County Commission Wednesday.

“Our traditional way of voting is very important. It’s a fundamental right of our republic, and I think that should not be taken lightly,” he said. “I think we ought to give people that fundamental right back.”

Regardless of the difficulty in providing a polling place, Zablotney said, the county should find a way to make it happen. He said he has found several volunteers willing to serve as poll workers.

County Auditor Devra Smestad stressed the number of time-consuming tasks necessary to set up a polling place. Staff already are working 50 to 60 hours a week to manage the mail voting, she said.

She explained a variety of processes would need to fall into place to open polls. At least 16 election workers would have to be found and trained on new voting machines by staff who themselves would first need more training. The state canceled regional trainings scheduled on the new machines last March due to COVID-19. Ward County no longer possesses its former voting machines.

The new scanners would need to be programmed and tested. Forty-two ballot styles would need to be ordered and printed. Personal protective equipment for poll workers and plans for social distancing at the polls would need to be in place.

“I think we would be rushing through everything,” Smestad said. “No matter how many people I can throw at it, there is not enough hours from today until the 9th to make this happen properly. My goal, and always has been, is that we do an election to the best of our ability, and that at the end of the day, it’s about the results, not the processes.”

A vote-counting machine that can process 70 to 75 ballots a minute will operate after 7 p.m. on June 9. Mailed ballots can begin to be prepped for counting by comparing signatures with applications starting next Wednesday.

State’s Attorney Roza Larson said the fraud issues don’t go away by having a polling place because absentee ballots remain available. Smestad said voters must have identification numbers, which makes voter fraud involving the deceased difficult, and those caught attempting fraud will be prosecuted.

Voters are encouraged to have their ballot applications to the auditor’s office by today and no later than Monday to ensure getting their ballots in time to postmark them by June 8 for return. People also can leave the voted ballots in one of seven dropboxes around the county by 4 p.m. on June 9.

People who need applications can obtain them at www.vote.nd.gov. Applications can be scanned and emailed to the county auditor’s office, left in a dropbox or mailed.

Smestad said her office has been processing applications as rapidly as possible but cannot always get to them the day they arrived. The office received about 600 applications on Tuesday, and Smestad said that is more than can be processed in a single day.

Zablotney said mailed ballots create opportunity for ballots to be lost.

“I’m really concerned about those that send in a ballot and their votes weren’t counted. That’s going to leave a door wide open to election challenges,” he said. “I know that steps are being taken to try to make it right, but there’s things that are out of our control and the mail is the biggest one.”

“I sincerely empathize with Mr. Zablotney’s concerns and our efforts to take a second look at this, but having heard the logistics of what we would be up against, I think we could be asking for a catastrophe almost, by trying to pull this off at this late juncture,” Commissioner Jim Rostad said.

Commissioner Shelly Weppler said the original vote for a mail-ballot election acknowledged the difficulty of establishing a polling place.

“These are very unusual times, and we are pressed with a lot of things just outside of the election itself. The new machines add to the level. COVID adds to the level. There’s just so many moving parts in this,” Weppler said.

Commissioner John Fjeldahl was critical of the state for not providing the training on the new machines. Because there was an option for a polling place under the executive order, Ward County should have asked for that training, and still could, he said.

The commission’s vote to affirm the original decision to vote entirely by mail was 3-2 vote, falling along the same lines as the original vote. Commissioners Fjeldahl and John Pietsch voted against.

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