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Carlton County voters break records, leans DFL (but it's close)

Voters turn out (and vote early) in record numbers

While many polling places in Carlton County were busy Tuesday, Thomson Township voters took it to a whole new level, with many waiting in line for more than an hour in a line that morphed throughout the day.

By 4:30 p.m., the line snaked from the side of the parking lot up to the top of the hill behind the building, then back down the side of the grassy field next to the building and around the parking lot before going inside. The fact that most people were trying to stay 6 feet apart was certainly a factor in the length of the line and the wait. So was the coronavirus, because social distancing meant there were 10 voting stations inside instead of the usual 20.

"That made a huge difference," said Rhonda Peleski, township clerk/treasurer and co-head election judge with Leah Pykkonen, noting that things went smoothly inside.

Both judges said it was steady all day, however, with no time for breaks for judges. The line outside appeared to ebb and flow, and by 8 p.m. all the voters were inside and Peleski could lock the door.

Then one more voter showed up at 8:01, a minute too late.

"They were understanding," she said.

Thomson Township resident Amber Nichols said it took her an hour and 22 minutes to get inside to vote Tuesday afternoon after arriving around 4:30 p.m. That's OK, she said. It was important.

"Our democracy is based on our voice being heard, and voting can be one of our quieter but most significant ways to use that voice," she said. "Collectively, those seemingly quiet voices can make a very loud statement."

Carlton County voters broke records this election season, with more people voting absentee and at the polls than ever before. Preliminary numbers put the voting percentage countywide at over 91 percent, but that doesn't include all the people who registered over the last two weeks and on Election Day.

Carlton County acting auditor/treasurer Kathy Kortuem said a total of 9,475 people voted at the polls in Carlton County on Election Day Tuesday, while 10,982 voted early. The early voting figure includes 7,437 who voted by absentee and 3,545 who voted in mail-in-only precincts.

There were an estimated 22,253 people who voted, which would put turnout near 90 percent when calculating the amount of registered voters. Comparing vote totals to the total population of the county, registered or not, puts turnout at about 75 percent.

The number of Carlton County absentee ballots for this year is three times that of the last presidential election in 2016, when a total of 2,436 people voted absentee, and more than six times the number in 2012, when the absentee ballots numbered only 1,204.

That explains some of the counting delays at the auditor's office Tuesday night.

Local results come late

Carlton County results didn't start rolling out to the Minnesota Secretary of State website (electionresults.sos.state.mn.us) until around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, even though polls closed at 8 p.m. That's because the auditor's office software was programmed to report the entire vote totals for a precinct, including absentee ballots and election day ballots.

"We had all ballots received through Monday completed by midday on Tuesday," Kortuem said, explaining that voters in mail ballot precincts could continue to vote at the courthouse until 8 p.m. on Tuesday, so they could not complete processing or count Tuesday's votes until after polls closed. "With 19 mail ballot precincts, it took some time to process and count all Tuesday's work, along with checking in and uploading polling place results.

"And we report results when completed, not partials," Kortuem added.

Once they started reporting precincts, the results came quickly. Although they were the last precinct to report to the courthouse, Thomson Township was one of the first precincts to have its results posted. Within 20 minutes, results for all 19 precincts were posted online.

It would be close to two hours before the 19 precincts with mail-in voting were counted and posted online, with results being released at about 2 a.m.

Carlton County chief deputy auditor/treasurer Kelly Lampel said the office started working to prepare ballots for counting (by opening and sorting them) well in advance of Election Day, but they didn't start running them through the machine to count them until last Friday.

The auditor's office was open for in-person voting Saturday, Monday and Tuesday, with the final votes being cast just before 8 p.m. Tuesday by two Mahtowa area residents who wanted to vote in person instead of by mail.

"It's just knowing that your vote has been cast, and that tradition of voting in person that I like," said Bob Golen, a former election judge in Cloquet.

"I don't like mail [voting]. It's too impersonal."

All Carlton County results are unofficial for now.

Vote totals are not "official" until the local boards and councils meet to canvass the results, and because Minnesota is still technically accepting ballots that arrive in the mail until Nov. 10.

Whether or not those ballots will be included in the final total is up in the air because of a court ruling last week. On Thursday, Oct. 29, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit said any absentee ballots that come in after Election Day in Minnesota should be separated from the rest of the ballots, in case a future court order makes those votes invalid. So while the ruling doesn't block Minnesota's seven-

day extension for counting absentee ballots that are postmarked by Nov. 3 but not delivered on Election Day, it does order a lower court to issue a ruling that would keep the late-arriving ballots separate so they can be "removed from vote totals in the event a final order is entered" that finds them unlawful, MPR News reported.

Kortuem said her office will be "receiving, dating and counting" the additional ballots as they arrive in the mail, but she didn't know when they will report those numbers; they are waiting for advice from the state.

Turnout high

Despite the large number of early ballots, including both absentee and mail ballots, most polling stations reported a high turnout Tuesday, with many seeing close to that 90-percent area with relatively large numbers of new registrations on Election Day.

In Atkinson Township, the first precinct to report into the courthouse Tuesday night, they had 269 registered voters that morning, plus another 15 who registered at the polls that day. A total of 82 people voted absentee, making a total of 255 voters Tuesday out of 284, or 89.8 percent. That means only 30 of the registered voters didn't cast a ballot this year.

Election judge Bob Asproth - who figures he's been a judge about 30 years - said he knew who two of the final three voters would be, since he hadn't seen them come in yet. Lines were pretty much non-existent at the Atkinson polling station, which is located inside the Carlton County Transportation building.

Skelton Township saw 91 percent of registered voters turn out or vote absentee, including 24 new people who registered and voted Tuesday.

Automba Township supervisor Dan Reed said the parking lot was full Tuesday morning with five people waiting in line.

"That's our version of Philadelphia," Reed said with a chuckle.

In Cloquet, Jeanne Toboleski celebrated her 90th birthday Tuesday in the most patriotic manner possible: by voting.

"It was quite busy," Toboleski said, adding that there were more voters than she expected, referring to the large number of voters who voted early.

The Cloquet resident said she votes in every election. Toboleski said the pandemic made this one a little different, but she felt good about the precautions the election judges were taking. "It was handled well. There was a guy walking around with a spray bottle," she said, with her "I voted" sticker affixed to the back of her hand.

Local election highlights

State races

District 11 incumbent state senator Jason Rarick beat challenger Michelle Lee pretty handily across the district, with 56.5 percent of votes (24,470) to her 43.3 percent (18,746), but Lee won Carlton County with 53.7 percent of votes here, compared to 46.2 percent for Rarick.

Incumbent Mike Sundin (DFL) won his fifth term in the Minnesota House of Representatives as District 11A representative, with 11,438 votes (51.4 percent) to Republican challenger Jeff Dotseth's 10,774 (48.5 percent). It was the second time the two men have faced off for the District 11A seat. In 2018, Sundin garnered 9,426 votes to 6,748 votes for Dotseth.

Cloquet council

In Carlton County's largest city, Elizabeth "Lyz" Jaakola will be the next Cloquet city councilor to represent Ward 5. Jaakola won with 725 votes (54.4 percent) to Dennis M. Painter's 603 (45.3 percent). Incumbent Steve Langley did not run for a third term.

Jaakola said she was humbled and excited by the outcome, noting that this election motivated more voters.

"It really makes a difference when more people are engaged in the political process. In this case, it put me in office. That's pretty cool," said Jaakola, a teacher at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, a musician and cultural consultant as a member of the Fond du Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. "Thanks/Miigwech to everyone who voted for me."

Cloquet's very large Ward 5 includes everything in the city limits north of the St. Louis River and west of Cartwright and University roads, and north of Houle Road. "I am going to do my best to represent everyone in Ward 5 with respect, enthusiasm and integrity," Jaakola said.

She also credited Painter for running a great campaign.

"It just shows how terrific Cloquet is when we had such respectful races," she said.

At-large city councilor Lara Wilkinson and Ward 4 councilor Kerry Kolodge both were unopposed and took more than 98 percent of the votes in their wards.

Cloquet school board

Incumbent Nate Sandman was re-elected with 18 percent, but he wasn't the top vote getter: that honor goes to Melissa (Siltanen) Juntunen with 20 percent of the votes. Retired Cloquet superintendent Ken Scarbrough came in third with 17 percent of votes. There were 100 write-in votes.

Juntunen said she was humbled to get the most votes, and thought being a lifelong resident who has worked in the community throughout the years probably helped, along with campaigning. She also has a lot of experience in education: she has a teaching degree and has worked as a substitute teacher and as American Indian Education grant coordinator. She also coached in the Cloquet school district.

Juntunen will also be the board's only female member, but that is not something she focused on.

"I feel that being an honest and hardworking individual are a couple of my strengths that I will bring to the school board," she told the Pine Knot. "I am a pretty level-headed and open-minded individual. My 'door' is always open and I am here for our staff, families, community and our students; my intent is to be their voice."

Thomson Township

The incumbent supervisors survived fairly easily on the Thomson Township board of supervisors, where Jason Paulson had three challengers and Bill Gerard only one.

Gerard won Supervisor Seat C with 1,591 votes to John Bergman's 994.

In the Supervisor Seat D race, Paulson hauled in 1,102 votes to serve a second term; his closest challenger was Eric Rish with 921 votes.

Esko school board

In a five-way race for three seats on the Esko School Board, Steve McConnell, Gerald (Jerry) Frederick and Leona Johnson were the top vote getters. Incumbent Mark Nyholm was only 16 votes behind Johnson in vote totals.

Although his name was listed on the ballot, Julian "Bert" Bertogliat had previously announced that he wasn't running due to health reasons.

Other races of note

In Carlton, where only two candidates ran for three seats on the school board, a total of 282 write-in votes were recorded.

Candidate Eryn Szymczak took the most votes with 1,527 and incumbent Timothy Hagenah got 1,378 votes.

Superintendent John Engstrom said district officials have requested information regarding the write-in totals, but Kortuem said her office was still going through all the absentee ballots for write-in names on Wednesday afternoon. Engstrom said they hope to know by the time the board meets to canvass the votes on Nov. 13 or sooner.

"The candidate with the most votes may either accept or decline the position," Engstrom said. "If they accept, we're done. If they decline, then the board will set up a process to fill the seat."

There are two incredibly close races.

Just one vote separates the third- and fourth-place finisher for Moose Lake School Board, which had three open spots. Lisa Anderson-Reed and Benjamin Anderson received 987 and 912 votes, respectively. Jerry Peterson had 831, while Donna Kirk had 830 votes.

The special election for Wrenshall city council member-at-large was also close, with just two votes separating winner Joyce Gvesrude (116) from runner-up Kevin D. House (114).

According to state statute, a losing candidate may request a recount of the votes cast in certain circumstances and not have to pay for the recount. In the case of the Moose Lake office, it appears they can request a recount if the difference between the votes cast for that candidate and the closest-winning candidate is less than one-half of 1 percent of the total votes for that office. Because the Wrenshall race involved fewer than 400 votes, all it takes is a difference of 10 or fewer votes.