The 2008 Minnesota Overseas/Military Absentee Ballot Follies – UPDATED

[NOTE TO REGULAR READERS: If you’re interested in how US absentee election ballots are handled, this post is for you. If not, and you stopped by expecting to see China content … might I recommend Dee Dee Pass’s excellent “The New China Price” in yesterday’s Star Tribune? A nicely reported piece.]

[UPDATE 09-09: Below, Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie leaves comment #1 on this post, with a brief update on some very encouraging changes in overseas voter procedures, and a link to where MN voters can get info on those changes. Great stuff.]

On Tuesday, Minnesota will hold its statewide primary election to determine the final ballot line-up for the November general election. I’m a Minnesota voter abroad, and in this post I’llcomment on a couple of issues that I encountered in completing and sending my ballot from Shanghai to Minnesota. Despite Minnesota’s well-earned reputation for holding high turn-out, problem-free elections, there’s plenty in the overseas absentee process that could and should be improved – especially eight years after Florida’s absentees arguably decided a presidential election. Anyway, two issues:[UPDATE 09-09: Shows what I know. I just received an email from MN Secretary of State Mark Ritchie informing me that the overseas/military voter situation has completely changed. Apparently, it’s now possible to send back a ballot, from Asia, for free. Information available on the MN Secretary of State’s Overseas Voter Foundation site. That information pretty much takes care of Issue 1, below. Issue 2, which follows it, is another matter.]

Issue #1: I registered for my overseas absentee ballot back in 2006, with the understanding that the registration would be good through the 2008 election. Sure enough, on August 22, I opened my Shanghai mailbox and there was my ballot for the September 9 primary.

And that’s the problem: I had a window of 18 days to get the ballot back to Minnesota if I wanted my vote to be counted.

Generally, mail from Shanghai to Minnesota takes between 14 and 17 days, though it’s been known to take longer. And compared to many other Asia countries that I’ve visited, that’s quick. Mail from India and Vietnam, for example, generally requires three weeks or more.

I had two choices: take my chances using China Post (US$2), or splurge on FedEx (US$25). Needless to say, if voters are forced to spend US$25 to ensure that their ballots are returned and counted, that’s going to seriously depress overseas turnout (I took my chances and sent it via China Post).

So – why did I receive my ballot so late? Because the State of Minnesota requires counties to wait until 30 days before an election before they can send out overseas/military ballots. In this case, that date was August 9, which means that my ballot arrived in a relatively speedy thirteen days (there was no postmark on the envelope, so this is just a guess). But you can guarantee that other overseas Minnesota voters weren’t nearly so lucky, and will have no choice but to pay for expensive express mail services, or not have their ballots counted at all.

Quite honestly, after the trouble with overseas ballots in 2000, it’s frankly amazing to me that Minnesota won’t allow its county election bureaus to send out absentee ballots sooner. Perhaps the legislature just hasn’t gotten around to the issue. Whatever the reason, I respectfully submit that allowing counties an extra ten days to mail out ballots would likely increase overseas voter participation.

Issue #2 I’ve long felt that if a local government can’t be trusted to hold a competent election, it can’t be trusted to do much else, either. And by competent I mean that the various elements of the democratic process are in good, working order: election judges know what they’re doing, ballot machines work, and the ballots themselves are clear and legible.

So. The Minnesota overseas absentee ballot package is comprised of four items: a) the ballot itself; b) a secrecy envelope to hold the ballot; c) a return envelope for the secrecy envelope that includes voter registration information and a voter signature box on the back; d) and an actual mailing envelope. When I received my ballot package, I carefully followed the instructions – but I ran into a problem when I tried to place the secrecy envelope into the return envelope. Get this: the return envelope was already sealed! Below, a photo of the seal after I carefully pulled it open on August 23:

[I am a legal resident of Hennepin County, and this ballot envelope was sent to me – along with my ballot – by the Hennepin County Election Division.]

I placed the ballot secrecy envelope into this one and sealed it shut with some glue. Hopefully, the altered seal won’t disqualify my vote … here in Shanghai, I wasn’t really in a position to request a new one in time for the election! Below, an image of the sealed envelope as it was mailed (in the mailing envelope) on August 23:

For the record, the other two sealable envelopes sent out by Hennepin County were in pristine condition (that is, not sealed). Which can only mean that whoever was responsible for preparing Hennepin County’s overseas ballot packages was either unaware of the fact that my envelope (and probably, others) was sealed in advance, or simply decided to overlook that fact and sent it out, anyway. Whatever the case, it’s simply unacceptable for ballot materials to be sent out in anything but perfect condition.

There’s not much that Hennepin County can do about it now, but I sincerely hope that – come October, and the mailing of general election ballots – the county won’t be sending out already-sealed envelopes with the ballotting materials.

And that’s what I have to say about that. Ask people from other others states: Minnesota’s absentee system is better than most. But that’s no reason to believe that the system is perfect, or not in need of some improvement. From the point of view of this lone overseas absentee voter, there’s still some distance to go.


  1. There is a brand new world awaiting Minnesota’s overseas voters — go to and click on the Overseas and Military Voter icon on the front. It will take you to the special website built just for you where you can take advantage of both email and fax options for getting you ballot, therefore cutting time in half, and also Fed Ex will bring you ballot back from Asia for free thanks to an arrangement made by the Overseas Vote Foundation.

  2. Hello from Da Nang Vietnam. I am not a Minnesota voter but I would like to know if other states have the same program. If you have any information could you please share it? I am from New Mexico.

  3. Adam, thanks for writing this. My husband and I are Minnesota voters overseas in Switzerland. We didn’t encounter any problems with our Sept 9th primary ballots, but I was just starting to wondering where our general election ballots were! Now I know when to look for them.

    For Rita, I hope you’ve already gotten the info you need, but if not or for others, the following website can help.

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