It was 1968 when Norma Voldal, now 83 years old, first worked at the election polls.

That year, Republican Richard Nixon defeated the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey. Alabama Gov. George Wallace ran on the American Independent Party ticket, campaigning for racial segregation.

Eugene McCarthy, Robert F. Kennedy and Humphrey emerged as the three major candidates in the Democratic primaries, until Kennedy was assassinated. The tumultuous election year was marked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and subsequent riots across the nation, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and widespread opposition to the Vietnam War across university campuses.

Vietnam War veteran Freddie Rios works in Morton County as inspector of the election board during the June primary election. Photos by NDAREC/Liza Kessel

Vietnam War veteran Freddie Rios works in Morton County as inspector of the election board during the June primary election. Photos by NDAREC/Liza Kessel

Community members get involved in the election process and serve their communities as poll workers.
Mike Montplaisir, Cass County finance director Courtesy photo
A North Dakota voter casts his ballot during the June mail-in primary election in Bismarck. Photo by NDAREC/John Kary

Fifty-two years later, in 2020, Norma will not be working at the polls. She is opting to cast her absentee ballot and stay home amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Norma still encourages others to get involved – and stay involved – in the election process.

“I think it’s a shame in this country the percentage of people that actually go out and vote,” she says. Just 55.7 percent of the U.S. voting age population cast a ballot in the 2016 general election, according to the Pew Research Center. That puts the United States behind most of its peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), most of whose members are highly developed, democratic states. Looking at the most recent nationwide election in each OECD nation, the United States placed 26th out of 32.

“We all need to know what’s going on at all government levels. … Once we get involved with an election, we get more interested. We see what’s going on. Once in a while, it’s only one or two votes difference, so if two or three extra people would have come out and voted that year, it would have changed the election,” Norma says.

Norma has worked at the polls most of those years since 1968 in Barnes County, where she and her husband, Henrik, are residents of Valley City.

She remembers working at an election in a country schoolhouse in a rural township, where 115 eligible voters resided. And 111 had voted that day.

“We were trying to figure out how we could get ahold of the rest to vote,” she says with a laugh. “Everybody knew if somebody didn’t show up, so it got to be your responsibility. … If you didn’t show up, you were disappointing your neighbors and your friends and your relatives.”

This year, she is taking advantage of absentee balloting, requesting her ballot by mail. And when she gets her ballot, she plans to make sure it is counted.

“I will drive mine to the box that they have outside the courthouse, because I’m a little concerned about the mail system right now. I’m going to make sure it gets there,” she says.

Voting by mail
“We’ve always allowed absentee voting. North Dakota has had no-excuse absentee voting for a long time,” says Michael Montplaisir, the Cass County finance director, who is responsible for overseeing the election process there.

In Cass County, three times as many absentee ballot applications have been received, he says.

“In a typical general election, we would get about 10,000 applications,” he says. But during the June 9 primary election, all active and inactive voters received an application in the mail from the North Dakota secretary of state’s office. Those who marked that application indicating they wish to receive a ballot for the general election will automatically receive a ballot in the mail for the Nov. 3 general election, and about 75 percent of the voters in Cass County opted to get the general election ballot by mail.

So, now Cass County has more than 30,000 requests for an absentee ballot for the general election. Across the state, county offices began mailing absentee ballots Sept. 24. Those ballots must be returned via secure dropbox by 5 p.m. Nov. 2 or postmarked by Nov. 2. This does NOT mean put it in the mail that day. If a ballot is mailed ON Nov. 2, there is no guarantee it will be postmarked that same day. If mailing on Nov. 2, it is advised for the voter to go to a post office and ask for a hand stamp of the postmark for that day. It is recommended to return a ballot via USPS at least two weeks before the election; if submitting your ballot within two weeks of the election, it is recommended to use a dropbox.

The election will look different due to the COVID-19 pandemic in other ways as well.

“Everybody is fully aware of the dangers of the COVID virus, so you have those who definitely want to vote absentee and you have those who definitely want to go to a polling place,” Montplaisir says. “We’re trying to provide options.”

Cass County is establishing six voting centers this year, rather than the typical 38 polling locations, due to COVID-19.

“With all the PPE (personal protective equipment) that we feel we need to provide, it’s just too difficult with a lot of sites,” Montplaisir says.

However, voters will have more hours to cast their ballots at the polls due to early voting.

Early voting in Cass County starts Oct. 19, and will take place Monday through Saturday, as well as Nov. 2 and Nov. 3 of election week, at five metro sites and a site in Casselton.

“We’re going to have more hours of actual polls open than we’ve ever had before, even though we had 38 sites before, simply because we’re having a longer time period,” Montplaisir explains. With new elections equipment, the polling places will operate differently as well, with more electronic equipment involved.

“It’s going to look different. It’s an opportunity for us to try something different. … I think the voting center concept is a good concept,” he says.

Getting involved
And, like Norma has in the past, many are offering to help as poll workers during the election.

“This year, we’ve been getting an unprecedented number of applications to work the polls,” Montplaisir says. “You hear across the country they’re having trouble finding poll workers. We’re not.”

Due to fewer polling locations, the county needs about 200 additional workers, rather than the 300 to 400 it usually requires, but he welcomes new workers.

“It’s an opportunity to get some younger people working the polling place. Once they do that, hopefully we can start using them in future elections, too,” he says.

Luann Dart is a freelance writer and editor who lives in the Elgin area.