Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon stopped by polling places during the August primary to make sure everything was running smoothly. And it was. Those safety procedures are in place for this election, too. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Voting should be easy. But this year, the coronavirus, the political stakes, and shifting guidance for when and how to vote have created extra stress for many voters. The new procedures can be especially challenging for immigrants who don’t speak or read English well, or don’t have access to the internet.

But voting in Minnesota is still safe and easy. It’s just a little different this year than before.

One change will help voters from immigrant and refugee communities. In the past, there was a limit to the number of voters any person could help at the polls. This year, that limit is not in effect. So if you’re the only English speaker in your family and were previously only able to translate for three people, now you can translate for your whole family.

With all the confusion this year, we spoke to Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon to clarify what voters—especially from immigrant and refugee communities—need to know about voting this year.

What’s the most important thing voters should know about how to vote in the next few days?

“The most important thing is for voters to know not to put an absentee ballot in the mail, period,” Simon said. “It’s too risky. Don’t do it.” That’s because of a confusing last-minute federal court decision that indicated ballots that arrive after Election Day might not count toward the total.

You have several alternatives:

-If you have an absentee ballot, you can hand-deliver it between now and 3 p.m. on Election Day, November 3. (Check your local elections office to find a site to drop your ballot; in Minneapolis, you can find a map here.) In most circumstances, Simon said, you can also ask someone else to hand-deliver your ballot for you.

-You can also decide to vote in-person by absentee. That’s also known as early voting. Every county in the state must have at least one early voting location open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, October 31. Depending on where you live, there might be additional hours and days for early voting too. Check with your city or county elections office to find hours near you.

-You can also vote at your polling place on Election Day.

You can vote in-person early or on Election Day, even if you’ve requested a mail ballot. 

“There are many options available to folks,” Simon said. “But do not use the mail right now.”

What if I already voted by mail and I’m not sure whether my ballot will arrive on time?

You can use the ballot tracker on the Secretary of State’s website to see whether your ballot has arrived. If it hasn’t been accepted yet, you can vote in-person early or on Election Day and override the in-transit ballot, Simon said.

OK, so I’m voting in person now. What precautions are in place to make voting in person safe?

“In an unprecedented way, we have spent the time, energy, and money to purchase and distribute to all 3,000 polling places in Minnesota PPE,” Simon said. That means high-grade masks for all election workers, disposable masks for all voters, hand sanitizer, pumps, wipes, disinfectant, and rules that cover social distancing and wiping down polling surfaces after voters use them. 

“We already had a good dress rehearsal in the primary election on August 11,” Simon said. “We had the same strategy, and it worked really well. We got excellent reports. People felt it was a hygienic, safe atmosphere that reduced risk.”

As far as his office knows, no one reported any cases of COVID-19 that were traced back to the August primary, he said. “So that is encouraging,” he said. “There’s never any guarantee. But we’ve done everything we can to minimize the risk.”

The high numbers of absentee and early voters this year also mean the polling place will be less crowded than usual, which will also help with safety, he added.

What should I do if I run into someone who’s trying to intimidate voters at the polls?

The first thing you should do is talk to the election judges, meaning the poll workers, Simon said. “They are trained on exactly the laws pertaining to voter intimidation and interference and they know what to do—up to and including going to law enforcement.” That means local police, and federal agencies are on notice as well.

“I have confidence the law will be enforced,” he said. “The rules with respect to poll challengers are very clear. And fortunately, they’re very pro-voter.”

Each party is allowed one poll challenger per polling station, designated in writing. They can’t come within six feet of a voter, or talk to a voter. Any challenges to voters must be made in writing and based on personal knowledge. “Not a hunch, not a vibe, not a feeling, not a question,” Simon said. “Personal knowledge.” For example, if they happen to know their neighbor’s daughter is 17 and not eligible to vote, they could raise a challenge.

You can also call law enforcement yourself, Simon said, but he recommends going through the election judges because they have built relationships for this purpose.

I’m the only one in my family who speaks English. Can I help my family vote?

Yes! You can help as many people as want your help. Under federal law, any voter who requires assistance is entitled to help from the person of their choosing.

Previously, any individual could only help three people vote. That was tough in communities where not everyone speaks or reads English, Simon said in a Hmong webcast this week. “You could help mom, dad, and uncle, but not mom, dad, uncle, and aunt,” he said.

After a lawsuit settlement earlier this year, that requirement is no longer enforced.

“Now there is no limitation,” he said. “You can help mom, dad, uncle, aunt, neighbor, spouse, child. You can never vote for someone. But you can help them fill out the ballot.”

What if we need interpretation services?

The best thing to do, Simon said, is to call your local elections office in advance to make sure they have translation services ready for you when you get there. So if you plan to vote Tuesday at 11 a.m., tell them, and they will have Somali interpretation ready at that time, in-person if possible or by phone. “They have to make those things available,” Simon said in the Hmong webcast. “The more notice you can give, the better.”

That’s true even if you don’t call in advance: there’s a translation phone line available to voters at the polling place, during in-person early voting and on Election Day.

What would you say to a voter who’s stressed out or confused over all the changes this year?

“Like so many other areas of our lives in this pandemic,” Simon said, including jobs, schools, and democracy, “we just have to adapt and be flexible.” 

What are you feeling hopeful and optimistic about?

“Minnesota is No. 1 in the nation for voter turnout for a reason, and that is because Minnesotans always find a way to vote,” Simon said. “I think we will again. People are fired up to vote, and they have already been planning to do so despite a once-in-a-century pandemic. I think nothing and no one will slow Minnesotans down or deter them from voting. You can feel it in the air, you can feel the energy, you can feel the determination, and we’re going to overcome this.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.