MINNEAPOLIS — In-person voting for the midterm elections opened Friday in Minnesota, South Dakota, Virginia and Wyoming, kicking off a six-week sprint to Election Day in a landscape that has changed much since the COVID-19 pandemic drove a shift to mail balloting in 2020.
Twenty people voted in the first hour as Minneapolis opened its early voting center, taking advantage of generous rules that election officials credit with making Minnesota a leader in voter turnout.
First in when the doors opened was Conrad Zbikowski, 29, a communications and digital consultant who said he has voted early since at least 2017.
"I like to vote early because you never know what might happen on Election Day," he said, displaying civic pride with a T-shirt bearing the City of Lakes logo. "You might get sick, you might get COVID, you might get in a car crash, there's many things that can happen. But what you do have control over is being able to vote early and getting that ballot in."
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The nation continues to grapple with the fallout from nearly two years of false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from former President Donald Trump due to widespread fraud and manipulation of voting machines. Those conspiracy theories, promoted by Trump allies in the campaign, on social media and at conferences across the country, have taken a toll on public confidence in U.S. elections.
They've also led to tightening of rules that govern mail ballots in several Republican-led states, as well as an exodus of experienced election workers due to an onslaught of harassment and threats since the 2020 election.
But no evidence has emerged to suggest widespread fraud or manipulation in 2020, while reviews in state after state have upheld the results showing President Joe Biden won.
Saturday is the deadline by which election officials must send ballots to military and overseas voters. North Carolina started mailing out absentee ballots Sept. 9.
Early in-person voting is offered in 46 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some states call it in-person absentee voting or advanced voting. In some cases, it mirrors Election Day voting with polling locations equipped with poll workers and voting machines. Elsewhere, it involves voters requesting, completing and submitting an absentee ballot in person at their local election office.
Early voting periods vary by state, with some offering as few as three days and others extending to 46 days. The average is 23 days, according to the conference of legislatures.
This year, voting will unfold in a much different environment than two years ago, when the coronavirus prompted a major increase in the use of mail ballots to avoid crowded polling places. States promoted mail voting, with a few opting to send mail ballots to all registered voters and others expanding the use of drop boxes.
While some changes are permanent, others have been rolled back. For instance, Georgia will have fewer drop boxes this year and has added ID requirements to mail ballots under legislation pushed by Republican state lawmakers.
In Wyoming, a steady stream of voters filed into the lone early polling place in Cheyenne. About 60 people voted there by midday, Laramie County Clerk Debra Lee said.
"It's less people and we don't have to worry," said one early voter, Brent Dolence of Cheyenne. "Things move faster and you don't have to wait so much."
Unlike elsewhere in the U.S., poll workers in Laramie County haven't been subjected to threats and harassment, Lee said, but they've received plenty of questions from voters about machines and the county's lone ballot drop box.
Minnesota's ballot includes races for governor and other statewide offices, with control of the Legislature at stake.
Zbikowski declined to say for whom he voted. But he said he doesn't take the right to vote for granted, given that his family came to America from Russia when it didn't have free elections. As a part-time poll worker — he was off-duty Friday— he said he's seen Minnesota's safeguards firsthand and has full confidence in the integrity of the process.
Other early voters included first-timers Ronald Johnson and his wife, Judith Weyl, who voted on Election Day in 2020. Both said they voted a straight Democratic ticket.
"It just feels like this election is so important, life is so busy, I just wanted to have closure on this as quickly as possible," Johnson said.
Johnson, 74, a mental health counselor, said he "absolutely" supports the state's chief elections officer, Secretary of State Steve Simon, over GOP challenger Kim Crockett, who called the 2020 election a "train wreck" and advocates for a return to voting mostly on Election Day. Simon calls the 2020 election "fundamentally fair, honest, accurate and secure," and defends the changes that he oversaw to make voting safer in the pandemic.
Aaron Bommarito, a 48-year-old teacher who also said he voted a straight Democratic ticket, said he has "absolute confidence in the system."
He said voting early was a spur-of-the moment decision: "I dropped my two kids off at school, and the 'Vote Here' sign was the next thing I saw."