Grand Forks’ votes in the June 9 primary – on City Council, mayor and a slew of statewide primary races – will be cast and counted entirely by mail.

The shift comes after a unanimous vote on Friday by the Grand Forks County Commission to permit a vote-by-mail arrangement as the threat of coronavirus renders a traditional election’s lines, crowds and shared spaces unwise. Now state officials are preparing for the unusual prospect of hundreds of thousands of ballots to be returned via mail to local election officials in one of the most unique electoral arrangements in modern state history.

The process will be twofold, with local residents automatically receiving an application for a ballot in the mail – so long as they’re in the state’s database of voters. Even those who are “inactive,” which means they haven’t voted in the last two election cycles, should receive an application.

“It’s just under 700,000 pieces of mail, so it’s going to be a very large mailing,” Jim Silrum, deputy secretary of state, said of the statewide impact. He noted that ballots could arrive by late April.

“Our goal is to have it out by (mid-April), but I can’t definitively say it will be out by then.”

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Once they’re filled out and returned, residents will receive a ballot in the mail, which must be postmarked by the day before election day – Monday, June 8.

If voters aren’t sure if they’re set to receive an application, Grand Forks County Auditor Debbie Nelson said they can call 701-780-8200 to contact county officials and double-check. But she urged patience through mid-April to avoid a rush of questions to county leaders and, potentially, confusion in coming months.

"Here's the thing: If they call us (and) they're already in the file – if we mailed them one, they'd be getting another one. But they can call us and check if they're in there,” Nelson said. "We will direct them to the secretary of state's website to request an application, because they need to put in their driver's license number and so forth."

And, despite shifting voting methods, Nelson said results for local elections are still expected on Tuesday evening.

Grand Forks’ local changes follow a Thursday press conference by Gov. Doug Burgum, during which he waived requirements that there be at least one in-person voting location in each county on Election Day. He also encouraged all of North Dakota’s counties to adopt vote-by-mail policies.

“The election is only 76 days from now,” Secretary of State Al Jaeger, an elected Republican, said while standing alongside the governor on Thursday. “We can't be preparing on June 1 for anything. We have to do that now.”

Donnell Preskey Hushka, executive director of the North Dakota Auditors and Treasurers Association, praised the decision by Burgum to shift the nature of the June 9 election. Her group had been in talks with the governor’s office prior to Thursday, pressing for changes; she said Burgum’s method of addressing the election leaves local governments with the control they need while still keeping voters safe.

“(County auditors) realize that this is a public safety concern as well,” Preskey Hushka said. “They really wanted to get in front of it before too much time had gone by and deadlines had passed and there was no way to make these kinds of changes."

There are still some questions remaining about how leaders will staff the effort, though. Preskey Hushka pointed out that many volunteers for elections are senior citizens – a demographic especially susceptible to COVID-19 – and that there’s widespread reluctance to take on a public volunteering role when so many people are advised to remain indoors.

For now, Nelson said, she’s working with local major-party leaders to find workers for June 9.

And, in the meantime, local election leaders are doing everything they can to prepare for the election. But so much remains a mystery.

"it's just unknown for everyone what is going to happen,” Nelson said of the quickly-evolving crisis. “We don't know what's going to happen June 9. Where will we be at?”

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