GRAND FORKS — As ballots pour in, county auditors across North Dakota are asking Gov. Doug Burgum to give them more time to process them.
The North Dakota Auditors and Treasurers Association asked Burgum in August to give members more time to handle mailed ballots ahead of the Nov. 3 general election, and has yet to hear back. State law only allows election workers to begin processing those ballots on the day before election day, but a gubernatorial order could suspend that requirement.
“Without this extension in process time, with the volume of ballots some of our larger counties are expecting, results could be delayed not by hours but maybe even days,” Donnell Preskey Hushka, the executive director of the auditors association, told Jace Beehler, a Burgum staffer, in an Aug. 25 email.
And “process” is a key word that’s distinct from “count” — when they receive a mailed ballot, election workers check it against a voter’s ballot application, then file the ballot itself to be officially tallied after the polls close on election day. The extra time they're asking to process ballots, then, would come ahead of Election Day and mean that more absentee ballots are ready to be tallied when the time comes.
Beyond quicker results, county auditors want more time for those first steps because it’ll put less strain on election workers, Preskey Hushka told Forum News Service.
“We don’t want to have them be processing these ballots for 12, 14 hours each day,” she said. “We ask a lot of those poll workers, and it's a very tedious job. You're opening up envelopes, and you're stacking ballots.”
Auditors, such as Preskey Hushka, predict that 50% to 60% of general election votes will be cast prior to Election Day itself.
In Grand Forks County, election workers mailed out 17,407 ballots and have thus far received 8,693 back, according to the North Dakota Secretary of State’s website. Those ballots will sit in a county vault until they’re processed.
County auditors asked Burgum for the same thing in March, and the governor’s order that permitted counties to not set up any physical polling locations also included a provision that stretched the amount of time they have to process mail-in ballots from two days to five.
But that was only for those June primaries, which is why county auditors are asking the governor to issue a similar order before the November general.
If the governor doesn’t issue such an order, it won’t affect the actual tally of votes, which will go on as long as it takes to complete.
“If poll workers have to work until 3 a.m. to get through it, they'll work ‘til 3 a.m. to get through it,” Preskey Hushka said.