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Lourey advances to face Rarick, Birrenbach in special election

Stu Lourey is the Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate in the special election for Minnesota State Senate District 11.

The Pine County native defeated his DFL opponent, Carlton County's Michelle Lee, in Tuesday's primary election by 1,933 votes (53,24 percent) to Lee's 1,698 votes (46.76 percent). Turnout in Tuesday's primary was low, at 11.19 percent in Carlton County and below 10 percent across all of District 11, which includes both Carlton and Pine Counties, along with several precincts in both St. Louis and Kanabec Counties.

Lourey thanked voters and supporters for braving the morning's snowy weather and winter driving to vote Tuesday.

"The support I've received from across the district is humbling, and I'm honored by all of the work our coalition and our volunteers have done to show up with their energy, passion, and ideas during this campaign," said Lourey, whose volunteers knocked on doors in the Cloquet area every day since at least Friday. "Together, we worked to spread our message of fighting for affordable health care, strong schools, access to broadband and good jobs - because that's what we all want for our families and our communities."

While Lourey gathered with supporters at Doc's Sports Bar and Grill in Sturgeon Lake Tuesday night, a group of about 20 supporters gathered with Lee at the Third Base Bar in Carlton to watch the results come in to the Minnesota Secretary of State's website on their cell phones, tablets and laptop computers. The results came in fast and furious, ultimately revealing that Lee won Carlton County by 1,151 votes to Lourey's 896 votes, but Lourey won bigger in Pine County to take the primary by 233 votes.

Lee said the highlight of her campaign was winning the DFL endorsement in Barnum Saturday.

And she urged her supporters in a Facebook Live video to put their support behind Lourey, whose dad, Tony, and grandmother, Becky Lourey, both served as state senator

representing District 11 - Becky from 1997 through 2006, and Tony from 2007 until earlier this month, when he was appointed Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services and vacated his senate seat.

"I want to thank the Lourey family for their years of dedication to the people of this region," she said. "You've done so much to make the lives of people better and we know your family will do all it can to continue its rich legacy of public service."

Stu Lourey also thanked Lee.

"I am so grateful to win the DFL primary today and I want to thank Michelle Lee for bringing her voice to the conversation and running an issues-driven campaign," he said. "Over the next two weeks, I'll be continuing to talk to even more voters to hear more voices and to earn their vote, so I can bring all of our voices to the Capitol."

Although only the DFL race was contested, the primary ballots also listed three other parties: Jason Rarick for the Republican Party; John "Sparky" Birrenbach for the Legal Marijuana Now party; and no listed candidate for the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party. Still, Rarick got 689 votes in the primary, and Birrenbach got 69.

Rarick won a second term representing District 11B in the Minnesota House of Representatives in November. The district includes portions of Kanabec and Pine Counties. He also won the Republican endorsement earlier this month, and the three other candidates dropped out of the race, leaving him the sole Republican candidate.

The special election for the District 11 Senate Seat is Feb. 5, exactly two weeks from the primary election.

That's another quick turnaround, noted Carlton County Auditor Paul Gassert, expressing concern that there still won't be enough time for all the mail-in ballots to get out and back.

Too fast for mail-in ballots?

Those concerns are very real.

Many residents living in rural Carlton County who vote by mail didn't receive their primary ballots until Friday or Saturday (Jan. 18-19), which didn't leave enough time for them to mail their ballots back to the courthouse in time to be counted on Tuesday. To make matters worse, Monday was a holiday so there was no mail delivery.

It took five days for ballots to be delivered from Carlton to places such as Mahtowa Township, Wright and Cromwell. If it takes another five days for those ballots to make their way back to Carlton, that means the auditor's office should receive them Friday, three days after the election. Which means they won't count.

Those that did arrive on time, along with ballots cast at the polls or the courthouse in advance of the election, were all counted by hand this time. Sue Parson of the Carlton County Auditor's office said hand-counting is not unusual in special elections like this or school district votes.

"Part of it is the timing. A lot of work goes into programming those little tiny cards," she said, referring to the drives that record and transfer the votes. "It's not a problem to count them by hand."

Thanks to the low voter turnout, doing a hand count of votes was not an issue at most precincts. Thomson Township had the highest number of voters turn out in the election, with a total of 236 votes cast. Precincts in Cloquet saw only between about 80 and 150 people vote, while Carlton had 63, Barnum (mail-in) had 24, Wright had 10 and Cromwell had 18.

Gassert said the most frustrating part if this special election has been the compressed time period.

"I'm told we aren't the only county with mail issues, I heard Pine County had some issues even though they got ballots sent out on Friday," said Gassert, who mailed the Carlton County ballots out on Monday and Tuesday because he was short on supplies after the November election.

The short timetable also meant cities had to open all the same polling places as usual, even though there were far fewer voters. Most polling places in Cloquet had at least four judges there all day, but it takes more time than they had to consolidate voting locations.

"I know that [the short timetable] is frustrating a lot of other people," Gassert added. "I think they will address it legislatively."

In the meantime, he said, he's hoping the state will certify the election results promptly on Thursday so he can get the ballots for next election to the printer that afternoon and, hopefully, get them back by Friday afternoon.

Even if he mails the special election ballots Friday, it's uncertain they will arrive in people's mailboxes in time for them to mail them back for arrival on or before Feb. 5.

"It's a good idea to drop off ballots at the auditor's office," he said. "Then you know your vote will be counted."