(TNS) — From the COVID-19 pandemic to the explosive social unrest and extreme natural disasters in many parts of the United States, 2020 has been a year like no other.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon is promising 2020 to also be an election year like no other, too.

"All elections are intense," he said. "Presidential elections are even more so for all the obvious reasons: The stakes are much, much higher. But layered on top of all of that this year is the fact that we are doing all of this during a once-in-a-century pandemic."

To minimize safety risks, the state encouraged mail-in voting — and will continue to accept and count absentee ballots through Nov. 10, as long as they are postmarked on or before Nov. 3. So while some races will be able to be called on Election Day or the following day, the final results for all races will not be tabulated until a week after the election. The seven-day extension means there might not be "instant gratification" on election night, Simon said. But he and local officials want to be sure voters know that delay isn't evidence of voter fraud.

"This is the plan. This is not the result of someone's laziness or screw up or falling down on the job or failing to plan ahead," he said "When citizens see on election night that we don't have 100 percent of the results in, it is literally by design. This is the plan — and it's not evidence that anyone is hiding or concealing or rigging or stealing."

At the Stearns County Service Center in Waite Park, it's pretty much business as usual.

While staff were able to begin processing absentee ballots at the end of the business day Tuesday — two weeks before Election Day instead of the usual one week — staff are "just basically doing the same thing," said Dave Walz, elections director.

"I tell people I'm doing the same thing I've done for 21 years," he said. "The only difference is there are more absentees."

The Push For Absentee Voting

The pandemic posed a "math problem" at the polls, Simon said.

"We have 3,000 polling places in Minnesota, roughly. And we're expecting, roughly, 3 million voters — probably a little bit more," he said. "All that means is that in the end, you have about ... 1,000 people per polling place, on average."

While some are higher and some lower, the result is the same: There would likely be too many people to allow for social distancing guidelines.

"We have been suggesting to Minnesotans that they should take a good hard look at voting from home by mail this year," he said. " The Legislature specifically authorized us to use funds for that purpose knowing and, I think, wisely predicting as it turns out that people would flock to this particular option of voting."

And they did: As of Tuesday, roughly half of registered voters in Minnesota had requested an absentee ballot and roughly 25 percent of registered voters had already voted.

In Stearns County, about 30 percent of registered voters requested absentee ballots. As of Monday, about 53 percent of the 37,000 ballots sent out had been accepted.

Security For Absentee Ballots

To vote absentee in Minnesota, voters must request a ballot and provide either a driver's license number or Social Security number. When they mail back the ballot, they must provide the same identifying information.

Cities with fewer than 400 registered voters or townships can choose to vote exclusively by mail — and Minnesota has had these mail ballot precincts for more than 30 years.

Four years ago, the state had about 940 mail ballot precincts. This year, the state has 1,345.

Thirty-one of Stearns County's 97 precincts are mail ballot precincts, Walz said. That's up from about 22 mail ballot precincts two years ago.

"The small cities and townships can do it legally, and for them it just makes a lot of sense. Some of them are under 100 registered voters," said Randy Schreifels, Stearns County's auditor-treasurer. "For them financially, for judges to sit there and get trained and everything else, it just doesn't make sense."

Although about one-third of Stearns County precincts are mail ballot precincts, those 31 precincts only make up about 10 percent of the county population.

Ahead of the mail-in voting period, the county sends a letter to registered voters. The letter cannot be forwarded so if it bounces back, the county will not send that person a ballot.

"The list we're working off of is pretty accurate," Walz said. "Then about a week to 10 days before we mail the ballot, we send another postcard saying, 'Hey, your ballot is coming next week. Don't throw it away with all the other junk.' ... That's also (not able to be forwarded). So even a week beforehand we can update our list before we mail the ballot.

"So, people always say, dead people are getting these ballots and people who moved two years ago," he continued. "Not in Minnesota. That does not happen."

So people who might be worried the increase in absentee ballots could lead to more incidents of voter fraud should find comfort knowing their Stearns County neighbors have been mail-in voting for decades without having to report their ballot was stolen or compromised.

"I've been doing this 21 years. I've never gotten that call," Walz said.

Where Could Voter Fraud Happen?

When the county receives absentee ballots, staff working in teams of two record that the person has voted. Envelopes with ballots are stored in a secured room that only few can access.

On Wednesday, staff started separating ballots from the signed envelopes and running ballots through a machine that counts them and can separate ballots with write-in candidates, which will need to be tallied for local elections. Votes are not totaled until after the polls close on election night.

Studies have shown that voter fraud is exceedingly rare. The Brennan Center for Justice, an independent, nonpartisan law and policy organization, in 2017 ranked the risk of ballot fraud at 0.00004 percent to 0.0009 percent, based on studies of past elections.

"Everything runs through the state's system," Schreifels said. "So if you vote and we accept an absentee ballot, there will be a record that we accepted an absentee ballot. If you go into your polling place, you won't be able to vote."

In very rare instances, people have voted twice — but that's an "easy catch" even if it's after the fact, Schreifels said.

He cited a college student about 10 years ago whose mother requested an absentee ballot for her and mailed it back; the college student then voted in a different county. The double vote was caught after the election and referred to the county attorney's office for prosecution.

If someone owns a house in two states and attempt to vote from each address, that would also be caught after the election when states run a cross-check, Walz said.

"It's post election. We've already counted the ballot," he said. "There's no way to get ballot back. But it's still a felony."

"It's not like it's a slap on the wrist. It's a felony," Schreifels added. "This is serious stuff."

Safeguards are also in place to protect ballots at the polling place. It's not possible to "stuff the ballot box" because officials make sure the number of signatures on each roster matches the number of ballots.

"You can never have more ballots than you have voters," Schreifels said.

Then, following the election, the county conducts automatic recounts of three precincts picked at random.

"There will be a hand count after the election and those are compared to the election day number and it always comes right out," Schreifels said.

Reducing the Risk of Cybersecurity Threats

Simon has emphasized Minnesota's reliance on paper ballots is crucial for ballot security.

Because the state does not have electronic voting, paper ballots and vote totals can be reviewed by city, county and state election officials several times before an election is certified by the state canvassing board.

"Our whole field of vulnerability is really shrunken. We are not like other states that have gone in for electronic touchscreen, no-receipt, no-paper trail voting. We're not like that. We have an ironclad bipartisan commitment to a paper trail, to something you can touch and feel and see," Simon said. "So that's why I'm less concerned ... about mischief at the polling place and with people somehow changing numbers. That's going to be discovered."

Simon said the state has also worked with the federal government and intelligence agencies to upgrade security of its website and databases.

"We have minimized the risks constantly, feverishly, obsessively for the last four years and I feel very good about where we are," he said.

(c)2020 the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.