BISMARCK — Roughly 158,000 North Dakotans voted in the recent June election, a strong turnout in a historic primary that relied solely on mail-in ballots.

Vote-by-mail surged to the fore of national politics this primary season as the coronavirus pandemic had state governments scrambling to restructure their election systems.

The outcomes were disastrous in several states, but North Dakota’s move to a completely vote-by-mail election stands out as a relative success. Not only did vote-by-mail reduce the risks for COVID-19 transmission in North Dakota, it also drew some of the highest voter turnout in state history. Among North Dakota primary elections, only 2012 saw higher numbers, with over 175,000 ballots cast.

This month's turnout prompts the question: Should North Dakota join a small group of states that vote exclusively by mail?

Nationally, there are several kinds of vote-by-mail systems. Five states, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Hawaii and Colorado, have switched to universal vote-by-mail elections in which the government mails ballots to every registered voter. California recently passed its Voter Choice Act, which gives counties the option to mail ballots to voters while maintaining in-person polls.

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North Dakota’s mail-in system requires a few more steps. Here, voters must fill out a ballot application to receive their mail-in ballot, and the decision to automatically mail applications to voters is made on a county-by-county level.

The question of expanding vote-by-mail in North Dakota tends to fall along party lines, with many Democrats arguing that easier access to mail-in ballots would increase voter participation and Republicans hoping to preserve the institutions of in-person voting.

"Mailing can be part of the system, but it shouldn't be all of the system," said state House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington.

Many liberal groups in the state would like to extend vote-by-mail to open the process to as many voters as possible. “The Democratic-NPL absolutely believes vote-by-mail should be expanded because it makes voting more accessible, especially in rural areas,” said Kylie Oversen, chair of North Dakota’s Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party. “It should be a nonpartisan issue."

And while the task of mailing ballots to every voter could be tricky for a state with no voter registration, Oversen and the Democratic Party also support efforts to move toward automatic mail balloting.

Dane DeKrey, advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union in North Dakota, similarly endorsed mailing reforms. “Vote-by-mail we think is more democratic. We think it leads to more voter turnout,” he said.

However, activists in the state’s Indigenous communities argue that a move to vote-by-mail on reservations, where the mailing infrastructure is spottier than other parts of the state, could widen disparities in turnout between white and minority voters.

Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, who comes from a Hidatsa-Mandan and Chiricahau Apache family, said “we still have to think about communities that don’t have built environments,” urging legislators to consider the steeper barriers to voting on reservations.

“There’s too many inadequacies for tribal reservations to go vote-by-mail,” said Nicole Donaghy, founder of the advocacy group North Dakota Native Vote. “One: the addressing system isn’t up to speed or up to par with the rest of the state and possibly the rest of the country. And two: the postal system is not reliable on reservations.”

Election workers go through stacks of mailed-in ballots on June 3 at the Ramada by Wyndham in Fargo. The June 9 primary was conducted entirely by mail. Forum file photo
Election workers go through stacks of mailed-in ballots on June 3 at the Ramada by Wyndham in Fargo. The June 9 primary was conducted entirely by mail. Forum file photo

DeKrey and the ACLU acknowledge the challenges vote-by-mail presents to Indigenous communities, and currently express only “tepid” support for a universal system. “It’s just a question of, is the short-term risk of dipping Native American voting until the system is figuring out its kinks worth the long-term reward?” he said. “We think it probably is, but that’s a question that is not our decision to make.”

In an interview with The Forum, Secretary of State Al Jaeger stressed that voter laws in North Dakota make for easy adjustments to mail-in voting. Thirty-three of the state’s 55 counties offer vote-by-mail, meaning ballot applications are automatically sent to voters. The remaining counties can opt in to have applications mailed to all voters, as they did this cycle. So when Gov. Doug Burgum issued his executive order waiving the requirement for counties to staff polling sites during the pandemic, Jaeger said, it was easy for counties to slide into an accessible mail-in system.

“The reason it worked is because we did have options already in law. The governor didn’t come out and say you counties have to do it this way. He encouraged it, and for valid reasons,” Jaeger said.

But despite the successes of the June election, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum told The Forum that his office does not plan to institute a similar system this November. He expects that polling sites will open again, even as a majority of counties continue to have ballot applications sent by mail, giving many North Dakotans the opportunity to vote remotely.

Both Jaeger and Silrum dismissed the option of moving to universal vote-by-mail, arguing that little would change since North Dakota voters already have the option to request mail-in ballots.

Vote-by-mail was a heated topic this primary season as President Donald Trump seized the opportunity to decry voter fraud, a phenomenon that political scientists have widely shown to be statistically insignificant. But while the North Dakota Secretary of State’s Office does not refute the president’s concerns about fraud, it does insist that mail-in processes here are safe.

“I’ve often felt that the way we do vote-by-mail in North Dakota is the most secure way to do vote-by-mail because you’re still required to request a ballot in order to vote,” Silrum said. “Where I think President Trump and many in the Republican Party are disgruntled with vote-by-mail is that in many states, especially out on the West Coast, they just send the ballot to all registered voters, whether they request one or not.”

In the short term, some election officials worry that a second wave of the coronavirus could overwhelm the voting infrastructure in November.

Mike Montplaisir, who oversees elections in Cass County, said June’s mail-in system created a “paperwork nightmare” for his office, which sorted through 37,000 ballot applications ahead of the election and more than 28,000 ballots on election day. He warned that his office would not be prepared to handle another universal vote-by-mail election in the upcoming general election, when they may handle more than three times as many ballots.

“Without voter registration, I don’t think that that’s really viable for November,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.