Reservation to keep polling place
December 18, 2020
A suggestion to move the only Cloquet polling location on the Fond du Lac Reservation got shut down quickly during Tuesday night’s Cloquet City Council meeting.
Reservation Business Committee (RBC) Chairman Kevin Dupuis, Jr. spoke out against the possible closure during the public comments portion of the meeting, and again when the council began discussing staff proposals for polling places in 2021.
On the table was a change of polling place for Ward 2 from the Garfield School gymnasium to the Cloquet Public Library addition — which passed — and proposals for Ward 5, which has two current polling places: Ward 5, precinct 2 at the Fond du Lac Head Start building, and Ward 5, precinct 1 at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church. The city council is required by state statute to establish polling places each year, whether there’s an election scheduled for the following year or not.
Staff had recommended three options for Ward 5 to the city council:
• Move precinct 2 voters to the National Guard Armory, where they could vote with Ward 4 voters;
• Combine precinct 2 with precinct 1 and have all of Ward 5 vote at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, located on at 515 Skyline Blvd., near the Cloquet hospital.
• Leave both Ward 5 precinct polling stations in their current locations.
Dupuis questioned why the city would move the polling place away from the reservation, where it’s been for years.
In response, City Administrator Tim Peterson said it’s been tough to recruit enough election judges to the precinct 2 polling station for a number of years, plus fewer people vote at precinct 2.
“We thought we’d move it to a location large enough to separate into two spaces and serve both wards, and make it easier for staffing,” Peterson said, noting later that the city had experienced “kind of mass exodus of election judges this year,” and ended up training 25 new judges, which was part of the reasoning behind the reconsideration of polling places.
Dupuis reiterated that he would like to see the city council work with the Fond du Lac band and share resources when they can.
“We run tribal elections every two years, we ran our tribal elections for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe through the Covid process,” he said. “My point is simply: ask for help. We are willing to help anybody; we have qualified people who have the ability to give a hand during the polling crises. But without that ask, we don’t know.”
Fond du Lac is willing to help “in any way, shape or form” to keep the polling place at the Head Start building, Dupuis added. He stressed that moving the polling place would make it harder for reservation residents to get transportation to the polls.
The RBC also sent a written letter to the city, stating they were disappointed that the city was considering the option without consulting with them.
“The purported reasons for the changes are unpersuasive,” the letter said. “We are aware of temporary staffing issues related to poll workers passing away, but those workers have now been replaced. The precinct — is the smallest voting district. So it’s no surprise that it has lower turnout, but that doesn’t change the importance of the polling site.”
Ward 2 Council member Sheila Lamb spoke out against the idea, pointing out that removing the polling place from the reservation could deter voting by Native Americans.
“Native votes are historically difficult to get,” said Lamb, who is Native American. “There has been a tremendous amount of community work done to get out the Native vote. … We need to make sure we aren’t undoing the work of other community members to increase people voting and having their voice heard.”
Peterson said he spoke with incoming Ward 5 councilor Lyz Jaakola, and she was also opposed to moving the polling place. Mayor Roger Maki and councilors Lara Wilkinson and Chris Swanson also spoke out against the idea.
Maki pointed out the much greater distance that precinct 2 voters would have to travel to vote.
“I don’t think we would ask the Ward 5, precinct 1 voters to go out to vote at precinct 2, at the Head Start that would never fly,” he said.
In the end, the council voted unanimously to move the Ward 2 polling place, but leave all the other polling places for Wards 1, 3, 4 and 5 in place. Current Ward 5 councilor Steve Langley was absent.
In other matters Monday, Cloquet police chief Derek Randall explained a proposed change to city code regarding pawnbroker transaction fees. The city is changing vendors for the service, and the new vendor comes with more tools for law enforcement but it will also cost more. So the city is proposing to limit the fee increase charged to the only pawnbroker in town, keeping the increase to about $25 a month. The council didn’t vote on the proposed code change because they wanted people to have a chance to see it in the legal ads (see page 17) and on the city’s website so they could get feedback before voting on the proposed ordinance in January.
As they have been since last spring, Tuesday’s meeting was held virtually and livestreamed on the city’s website. The council adjourned into a closed session afterward to discuss the city administrator’s performance evaluation.