ROSEVILLE - Kathy Moore wasn't taking any chances with her vote this year.
The 52-year-old nurse filled out an absentee ballot a week early and she wasn't alone. Voters who planned trips, scheduled surgeries or, like Moore, feared work-related scheduling conflicts trickled into Roseville City Hall to play their part in an election that's expected to draw big crowds on Tuesday.
"I don't trust my job to get me out on time," Moore said moments after she voted. "I'm not going to be at work sweating it out, thinking that I'm not going to vote."
Election officials are bracing for near-record turnout in Minnesota, which leads the nation in voting.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie wants 80 percent of registered voters to cast ballots - a level that would still fall short of the 83 percent record set in 1956, when the minimum voting age was 21.
In Crow Wing County, Auditor Deborah Erickson said the voting at the auditor's office on the second floor of the historic courthouse on Laurel Street in Brainerd has been brisk.
"We've been doing steady absentee voting at our counter and mailing out (absentee ballots)," said Crow Wing County Auditor Deborah Erickson. "I'd say we are pretty much on pace from previous presidential elections."
About 10 percent to 15 percent of registered voters typically vote absentee in a presidential election reflecting the number of Crow Wing County residents who head south for the winter. Erickson said the percentage is sometimes higher if the hunting season overlaps Election Day but that won't happen this year. When 33,666 people voted in the county in 2004, there were 3,356 absentee ballots counted. That year the county mailed about 3,800 absentee ballots, but some were not returned and others may have been rejected because they were not completed correctly.
The auditor's office will be open for absentee voting from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday and open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday. If a resident needs an absentee ballot mailed to them they need to contact the auditor's office immediately as their ballot, which may be delivered by a designated person or the postal service, must reach the auditor's office no later than 3 p.m. on Election Day to be counted.
So far, absentee voters are giving election judges a foretaste of what's coming.
In Anoka County, on the Twin Cities' northern edge, elections manager Rachel Smith said the number of absentee voters already tops the 2004 record by 35 percent - with days to go. Commuters in fast-growing cities like Andover, Ramsey and Blaine are coming in early. So are snowbirds who winter in warmer states.
In Ramsey County, which includes the St. Paul suburb of Roseville, elections manager Joe Mansky said more than 20,000 voters have already weighed in; he expects another 3,000-plus by Monday's deadline for absentee voting, topping 2004 levels. And voter registrations in the county have reached a new high of nearly 317,000 - not counting the 60,000 or more voters Mansky expects to register on Election Day.
"We are setting a new record virtually every day," he said.
Mansky and other election officials are warning voters to expect lines on Tuesday.
But Ritchie said the crowds won't be significantly larger than the last presidential election because Minnesota already has high turnout and absentee voting is up roughly 50 percent this year.
Officials are downplaying the possibility of other problems, such as widespread challenges to voters or glitches with voting machines. A 2005 state law requires anyone who challenges a voter's eligibility to prove that he or she is a state resident and make the challenge under oath. And elections in Minnesota are done on paper ballots fed into scanners, so voting can continue even if a machine crashes.
Ritchie said the biggest threats are a major snowstorm and an attack by computer hackers. He said hackers in China attacked his office's computer system with a virus four days running in May, and a similar attack during the election would force election officials to rely on telephone and paper communications.
Organizations ranging from the DFL and Republican parties to ACORN and the League of Women Voters Minnesota Education Fund are pushing to turn out voters. Groups including the League and the Voting Rights Coalition are also staffing voter hot lines.
In Anoka County, Smith said her office is preparing to handle double the 189,000 registered voters. She ordered twice as many ballots, plus extra registration cards, pens, voting booths and "I Voted" stickers. They've broken down the rolls of registered voters into more binders to minimize waiting times.
Smith also wants election judges to greet voters when they arrive to make sure they're at the right precinct and carrying whatever identification they need to register at the polls, if they're not registered already.
"Every little detail has been increased as a result of what we expect to be a high turnout," Smith said.
Minnesota has about 3.2 million registered voters, including more than 115,000 who signed up this year, according to Ritchie's office. The state allows Election Day registration, so the numbers will rise. Ritchie's office said 235,000 new voters registered at the polls four years ago.
In Roseville, election judges outnumbered voters in the city council chambers. Those who voted, including retirees Jim and Sharon Dueber, said making their voice heard was worth the early trip.
"This is a big election," said Jim Dueber, 65, who plans to be out of town on Tuesday. "It really is."
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