Williams County's mail-in election is on track to set a record for participation in a June primary

The ballot drop box for Williams County is located behind the County Administrative Building on East Broadway, near the entrance to the DMV office. Others will be placed around the county in advance of the November General Election.

CROSBY, N.D. — North Dakota’s county auditors are busy this fall preparing property tax bills, but they also have elections in the back of their minds, and some wonder if the challenges they faced in 2020 will resurface next spring.

The 2020 vote saw North Dakota shift to all mail-in voting for last year’s primary due to the pandemic. Offices also reported a harder time recruiting poll workers because of health risks tied to COVID.

Gayle Jastrzebski, auditor and treasurer of Divide County, said amid another COVID wave, it is unclear how much the crisis will impact voting for next June’s primary. She noted even though there was a slight return to normal last November, a lot of ballots were still mailed in.

“Even in the fall, when we had the one precinct open, three-fourths of our voters voted by mail-in, still,” Jastrzebski pointed out.

She now wonders about preparing again for strong demand for absentee ballots. In last year’s primary, the Secretary of State waived a requirement for counties to keep at least one polling location open, with all 53 adopting the mail-in approach. The office said it does not anticipate a similar move next spring.

Meanwhile, Jastrzebski acknowledged older poll workers might opt to sit out the June primary if case levels remain high.

Debbie Nelson, auditor of Grand Forks County, said getting enough people to work at polling locations remains a concern, especially if the pandemic stretches well into 2022. She emphasized it is not just hard on administrators. It could also discourage some people from casting their ballot if staffs are overwhelmed.

“(If) people have to wait in line too long, they will not vote,” Nelson observed. “So, we want to make sure we do not have long lines.”

Past research from the Brennan Center for Justice has found that long lines can have an impact on voter turnout.

Nelson stressed fortunately for her, she was able to address poll-worker shortages in 2020 through a national website, which helps with recruitment in each state. She hopes it can be effective next year as well.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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