Minnesota Voters Head to Polls for Close Primary Races

A sign directing voters is seen outside a polling place at Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Minneapolis on Tuesday. (Courthouse News photo/Andy Monserud)

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — Freshly spritzed with hand sanitizer, Minnesota voters headed to socially distanced polls Tuesday morning to vote in the state’s primary election, featuring several hotly contested races.

Voting by mail has been a popular option this year, with Secretary of State Steve Simon’s office reporting Monday that over 423,000 absentee ballots had already been filled out and returned. In total, voters requested 637,463 ballots from Simon’s office, and over 100,000 rural Minnesotans receive absentee ballots by default.

Even without in-person voting and with mail-in ballots counted two days after Election Day, that turnout dwarfs the 294,797 who showed up for primaries in 2016 — a historic low. That two-day grace period means final vote totals will likely be delayed, Simon’s office said, though vote totals are typically tabulated in real time on the office’s website.

The glut of by-mail voters made social distancing a lot easier Tuesday morning at Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Minneapolis’ Bancroft neighborhood. A slow but steady trickle of voters cast ballots there in primaries for state representatives, school board members, U.S. Senate and the 5th Congressional District seat currently held by Ilhan Omar.

By 9:45 a.m., election judges estimated that 120 voters had come through the church since polls opened at 7 a.m., though a broken tabulator prevented them from providing an exact number. Outside the 5th District in St. Paul, another election judge reported that her precinct had seen only about 20 voters by 10:30 a.m.

Omar’s race against Minneapolis mediator Antone Melton-Meaux is among the most fiercely contested primaries in the country, dominating news coverage of the statewide election and drawing millions of dollars to each candidate’s campaign. The winner of that Democratic primary is likely to be elected in November to represent the solid-blue district, though three Republicans are also vying for their party’s nomination in the district.

Amanda Fong and husband Mason Fong said they both voted for Omar, and that the money in the race had been a major consideration.

Amanda and Mason Fong voted for incumbent Congresswoman Ilhan Omar at Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Minneapolis on Tuesday. (Courthouse News photo/Andy Monserud)

“I was almost persuaded by Antone,” Mason Fong said. “I think we literally got a flyer every other day from their campaign.”

That made him take a good look at the political newcomer, he said.

Ultimately, though, where that money was coming from was important to the Fongs. Amanda Fong said she’d read about major donors contributing to Melton-Meaux’s campaign because they saw him as a “status quo” candidate. That swayed her toward Ilhan’s re-election campaign.

“I feel like she’s done a really great job,” she said. “I appreciate her willingness to speak up and take risks.”

Melton-Meaux’s campaign has hit Omar hard on that point, saying that she’s courted celebrity and controversy while maintaining a poor attendance record in Congress. His campaign signs bear the slogan “focused on the fifth.”

Omar, meanwhile, has pointed to the fact that she introduced over 50 bills in her two terms, and noted that many of her missed votes were on Muslim holidays or followed the death of a family member. Omar’s father died of Covid-19 in June.

Mason Fong also gave a positive, if less glowing, review of Omar. He was willing to give her another term to prove herself, and said “we can save that bigger discussion for her next term.”

Voter Christine Bedor was wary of taking a stance on the 5th District race.

“We’ll see how it comes out,” she said.

Bedor said she’d voted enthusiastically for incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Tina Smith, however, and had decided to vote in person after she received her mail-in ballot late.

“I got it, but I got it on Friday or something,” she said. “I was afraid it would get lost somewhere.”

Concerns about the mail were also a factor bringing the Fongs to their polling place. Mason Fong put off sending in a mail-in ballot, he said, and reports of mail delays in the midst of a budget crisis for the U.S. Postal Service convinced him to vote in person instead.

“Clearly this precinct at this time is super safe, and super convenient,” he said. “I would be a little reluctant if there were lines.”

April Kane, a candidate for the Minnesota House of Representatives seeking to unseat an incumbent Democratic, arrives to vote at Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Minneapolis on Tuesday. (Courthouse News photo/Andy Monserud)

Bethel Lutheran is also about a mile from Cup Foods, the site where Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for several minutes in a viral video which sparked outrage, protests and riots across the country. Floyd’s subsequent death loomed large at the polling place. While the polls themselves were free of signage, Black Lives Matter signs sat in the church’s windows and its outdoor sign called for justice.

April Kane, a candidate for the Minnesota House of Representatives seeking to unseat incumbent Democratic Farmer Labor Party member Jim Davnie, said she’s running to keep the neighborhood safe in the face of rising crime following this summer’s riots while advocating for police reforms, along with two education bills aimed at preventing childhood sexual abuse and opioid addiction.

She voted in person, she said, because she values the experience.

“It’s important to me, my constituents are important to me, this district is important to me,” Kane said.

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