Mike Jacobs: Primary could test new way of voting in North Dakota

Mike Jacobs is a Grand Forks Herald columnist.

During this pandemic, elections will change. After the pandemic, elections may never be the same.

On Thursday, which was March 26, Gov. Doug Burgum waived a rule that every county must have at least one in-person polling place, opening the way for what amounts to universal absentee voting. This decision will be made by county governments. Commissioners in Grand Forks County didn’t waste any time. They voted Friday to conduct the June primary election by mail only.

This isn’t surprising. Earlier, the governor of Ohio unilaterally postponed that state’s primary, where there was much more at stake than there is on North Dakota’s ballot.

North Dakota’s primary may be as good an opportunity as will ever develop to test mail-only voting in North Dakota. That’s because this is a primary election of little consequence; neither of the Senate seats are open this cycle, and there’s no contest for either party for the state’s single seat in the House of Representatives. Nor is there any contest for governor. Farther down the ballot, Republicans have contests for treasurer and superintendent of public instruction – technically a no-party office. Democrats have mostly blank spaces on their ballot.

What’s more, there are no ballot measures, which is somewhat unusual. In the last presidential election year, the primary had a contest for the Republican gubernatorial endorsement and a high-touch ballot measure having to do with corporate ownership of farmland. Still the turnout was small, less than 25% of eligible voters. Look for an even smaller turnout this time.


Of course, there may be exceptions, and Grand Forks may be one. While the upcoming election is a primary statewide, it is a general election in the city, meaning that it will be decisive. No second chances. Grand Forks faces a crowded mayoral field this election, though as yet there’s no evidence that the campaign will be especially heated. But the election in Grand Forks offers a potentially tantalizing combination, an inconsequential statewide election coupled with a definitive city election, all of which makes this a good year for experimentation.

It’s no surprise that Grand Forks County leaped at the chance to try this new system. For a number of years, county officials have been streamlining the system, largely by consolidating precincts. This saves cost, because fewer election workers are needed. That means less time seeking volunteers.

It also ends controversy about whether every precinct should have a voting place. This became an important issue in a Grand Forks City election not long ago. Voters approved selling a downtown park to a developer. Critics charged that holding the election in a single spot away from downtown discouraged voters who opposed selling the park.

Voting by mail may also end the controversy about whether or not voters must have postal addresses. They won’t get ballots without one.

Another problem will also be avoided, a shortage of ballots. Not so many years ago, Grand Forks County ran out of ballots, causing a kerfuffle and a barrage of allegations. None of that will happen when enough ballots are printed to mail one to every voter.

There’s a glitch in that plan, however. North Dakota doesn’t require voter registration, so there is no dependable record of eligible voters. This anachronism might be another victim of coronavirus. North Dakota has managed to avoid voter registration; it is the only state that has no permanent registration of voters.

Mail-in ballots will change that, even if voters themselves don’t register. The county plans to mail ballots to everyone who voted in the last two election cycles, leaving a couple of gaping holes. One is newcomers. In the past, new residents simply showed up at the polls and signed an affidavit of residence. They’ll have to apply for a mail ballot. This could dampen the enthusiasm of students, who turn out in their hundreds every year.

The county could end up mailing ballots to hundreds of voters who have left while missing hundreds of new voters who have just arrived. The same goes for irregular voters. Grand Forks County officials said – in the Herald report of the commissioners’ decision printed on Saturday– that they’d send ballots to those who voted in the last two election cycles. The upshot is that those who haven’t voted recently will have to apply for mail-in ballots.


Then there’s the temptation to vote early, which encourages impulse voting, in contrast to the majesty of Election Day, which provides an opportunity for last-minute reflection.

As a political junkie, I’m going to miss the election night drama, as well. With all the balloting done by mail, counting should go much more quickly. No more worry about the number of precincts reporting. They should all be there since ballots must be postmarked the day before the election.

There’s a lot to be worked out before the primary election, which is set for June 9 – seven weeks from today.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.

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