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Election Notebook: Gray, damp weather does not stop Minnesota voters

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ST. PAUL -- Minnesotans may disagree about a pair of proposed constitutional amendments and may not see eye to eye on candidates, but they agree on one thing: They want their voices heard.

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Big voter turnout was reported in many areas, despite cloudy, damp, chilly weather.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie had predicted 3 million Minnesotans, 78 percent of eligible voters, would go to the polls today. While no running totals were available, reports from around the state indicated strong interest.

Problems also were reported, including a bomb threat and elections officials who may have gone too far in explaining ballots.

The story from Bemidji was typical. The first voter arrived about 6:25 a.m. at Northwest Technical College, well in advance of the 7 a.m. opening.

Bemidji City Clerk Kay Murphy, who visited polling places throughout the day, said everything was going smoothly, but things were "very busy."

About a dozen students were lined up to register to vote at the American Indian Resource Center on the Bemidji State University campus just before noon.

In west-central Minnesota, a bomb threat required a building evacuation this morning at the Minnesota West Community and Technical College campus in Canby, which houses a polling place.

The bomb threat was reported at 11:24 a.m. when two female students discovered the words "bomb in school'' scrawled in pen on a bathroom stall door in the Main Administrative Building.

No bomb was found, and the scene was declared safe at 1 p.m.

Officials corrected poll workers at a Cottage Grove precinct after a voter reported an election judge gave instructions on the state constitutional amendments beyond what is allowed.

Cottage Grove resident Mary Isely said an election judge distributing ballots was telling voters in a loud voice that leaving the state constitutional amendment questions unchecked would be a "no" vote.

"Everyone in line, we all heard it. The place was just packed," Isely said. "I was rather startled. My impression is that judges weren't supposed to say anything at all about filling in (a) ballot."

Isely went to Cottage Grove City Hall and spoke to staff.

Cottage Grove employee Joe Fischbach said he talked to election workers in Precinct 2 to make clear that poll workers are not allowed to provide the information that was being given earlier today. Election judges only can advise voters to completely fill in the ovals on their ballot.

"We're not supposed to let them know one way or the other on any of the initiatives," Fischbach said.

Jennifer Wagenius, director of Washington County Property Records and Taxpayer Services, said there was a similar complaint of election workers saying too much about the proposed constitutional amendments in an Afton precinct. County elections staff talked with poll workers there as well.

Similar reports came from Douglas County.

A journalist voting there heard elections officials explaining that not voting for an amendment equaled a "no" vote. When she asked about it, she said that they became defensive.

The secretary of state's office, which oversees elections, said such comments were not proper. They were considered electioneering.

Voters were deciding in separate measures whether to amend the state's constitution to ban same-sex marriage and to require photo identification to vote in future elections. The worker was correct about a blank ballot equaling a "no" vote, but Isley said it seemed like the judge was an amendment supporter.

In West Duluth, voters were given ballots with Rep. Kerry Gauthier's name on them instead of Erik Simonson. A voter told an election judge about the problem at about 7:15 a.m.

Correct ballots with Simonson's name on them were brought in within 12 minutes. Only a few ballots with Gauthier's name on them were cast.

Until the new ballots were brought in, voters were instructed about the error and told they could write in Simonson's name if they wished to vote for him.

Gauthier withdrew from the race after he admitted to having a sexual encounter with a male teen in a rest area. The state Supreme Court ordered his name removed from the ballot, replaced with Simonson.

In Minneapolis, some voting machine problems were reported.

Legislature control decided

Minnesotans picked 201 legislators Tuesday, people who will decide issues such as taxes and how those taxes are spent.

In most elections, Minnesotans do not know which party wins legislative control until late Tuesday night or early Wednesday. With newly drawn legislative district lines this year, and many seats without an incumbent, more than the usual number of close races were expected, further delaying word on who will be in charge of the state House and Senate.

Republicans pulled a surprise two years ago in taking control of the both the House and Senate. It was the first time in 38 years the GOP was in the Senate majority. But 2010 was a "wave election" with Republicans doing well nationwide.

There was broad agreement in both parties that this would not be such a wave vote, so the legislative outcome came down to individual races across Minnesota.

Control of the Legislature is important because the party that runs each chamber can control what bills are debated, and what ones never see the light of day.

The majority party also decides budget priorities, and next year's session is to approve a two-year state budget. The budget dispute last year ended with a state government shutdown.

Gridlock that led to the shutdown has been a key Democratic issue in legislative races. Democrats say the public tells them about being tired of partisanship shown in St. Paul.

However, Republicans report having success talking to voters about jobs and economic issues.

With Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton in office for at least two more years, Republicans were determined to keep control of at least one chamber to block the liberal's wishes to raise taxes on rich Minnesotans and take other actions the GOP opposes.

Democrats, meanwhile, wanted to take over the Legislature to approve Dayton plans that Republicans have blocked the past two years. They also blame property tax increases on Republican legislators.

Romney, Obama compete

Pre-election polls offered conflicting views about whether Minnesota was in play in the presidential election.

Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney sent top surrogates into Minnesota in the last couple of weeks, something not seen for most of the campaign when there was little doubt Obama held a solid lead. But in recent days, Republicans claimed the state had moved into play, while Democrats continued to insist the president would win.

GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan appeared before thousands in the Twin Cities on Sunday, and one of Romney's sons and the Republican National Committee chairman were in the Twin Cities Monday. Former President Bill Clinton rallied Minnesota Democrats three times within a week.

Obama had a campaign staff in several Minnesota communities for months, while Romney never opened an office.

A SurveyUSA-KSTP poll released over the weekend showed Obama leading Romney 52 percent to 41 percent. Obama led by 7 points less than a week earlier.

Other recent polls, however, showed Obama's lead as small as 3 points.

One longtime Republican leader, Michael Brodkorb, wrote in his blog that the last-minute Romney campaign push in Minnesota was too little, too late.

"Minnesota presented a real opportunity for the Romney campaign and resources should have been spent here weeks ago," Brodkorb wrote. "But Romney's campaign has not put the substantive resources needed into Minnesota to make the race more competitive and Ryan's vanity stop (Sunday) won't put Minnesota in the win column for Romney."

Even with thousands attending the rally, Brodkorb said, the visit did little good because there was no "strong Romney organizational structure in place in Minnesota to put the thousands of volunteers that attended Ryan's rally to work in the final hours of the campaign. In fact, many volunteers left phone banks and stopped dropping lit for local candidates to stand in an airport hangar to cheer for a candidate who's likely not going to win Minnesota."

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was a leader of Romney's campaign, after he quit his own presidential effort, until he accepted a Washington lobbying job.

3 high court races

Incumbents were expected to win all three Minnesota Supreme Court justice elections.

Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea, a Plummer native and former University of Minnesota attorney, faced Dan Griffith of International Falls. She played up her experience leading the judicial branch, while Griffith said he was running because judges are appointed even though the state Constitution says they should be elected.

Rookie Justice David Stras was challenged by Tim Tingelstad of Bemidji. Stras said his federal court and academic background is a plus. Tingelstad, however, said his time spent as a judicial magistrate is a better background.

The third race featured Justice Barry Anderson defending his seat against Dean Barkley, who spent 62 days as U.S. senator after Paul Wellstone's death 10 years ago. Like the other challengers, Barkley complained that justices no longer are elected and Anderson touted his experience on the court.

The three challengers said sitting justices have great advantages, including being labeled "incumbent" on the ballot. Being appointed in mid-term, like happened with all three incumbents, also gives them an advantage before facing a vote for the first time.

This story contained reports from Forum Communications newspapers around Minnesota and freelance reporters Andrew Tellijohn and Martin Owings.

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