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N.D. voters cast ballots early

North Dakota's county auditors are encouraging voters to vote early this year. But not often. Already, thousands of voters -- for a variety of reasons -- have cast ballots for the Nov. 2 election. In Cass County, the state's largest, up to 10 per...

North Dakota's county auditors are encouraging voters to vote early this year.

But not often.

Already, thousands of voters -- for a variety of reasons -- have cast ballots for the Nov. 2 election.

In Cass County, the state's largest, up to 10 percent of voters could choose their candidates prior to election day, according to auditor Mike Montplaisir.

Beginning Tuesday, a pre-election polling precinct will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. It will stay open Monday through Friday.

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Four years ago, in an election pitting Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush as the main presidential candidates, 6,698 of the 59,000 ballots cast were in before Nov. 2, according to Montplaisir.

North Dakota law was changed six years ago to loosen rules on early voting.

Montplaisir estimates that in Cass County, about 400 of the 2,450 absentee ballot requests so far are from members of the military.

Many of those requesting ballots are North Dakota residents living in or heading to the South, Montplaisir said.

"But a lot of them are just people who don't or can't go to the polls on election day," he said.

Cass County residents can apply by mail for an absentee ballot or simply vote at the courthouse, he said.

Many early-bird voters are people prodded by interest groups and political parties that have been encouraging early absentee voting.

"We're living politics right now, everywhere you turn," said Kevin Glatt, the Burleigh County auditor in Bismarck. "It was such a close (presidential) race four years ago, that people are finally coming to the realization that every vote does count."

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Glatt said Tuesday that his office has sent out more than 2,500 absentee ballots, and had more than 1,000 returned. In the last presidential election, Burleigh County had about 5,400 absentee ballots.

County auditors and Secretary of State Al Jaeger say absentee ballots have been widely available for more than a week. They may be used by any eligible North Dakota voter, regardless of whether he or she is going to be away on Election Day.

"It's been active. It's been very active," said Noel Johnson, the Stutsman County auditor in Jamestown.

North Dakotans may send an absentee ballot application to their local county auditor, who then returns a ballot by mail. Auditors say voters also are coming to their offices in person to vote early.

"There's quite frequently a few people at the counter during the day, wanting to vote," said Deb Nelson, the Grand Forks County auditor, who has received 279 completed ballots so far.

Nelson and other auditors say that North Dakotans who are serving in the regular armed forces and the North Dakota National Guard have been contributing to the demand for early ballots.

"It's a tight presidential race," Nelson said. "And the military being over in Iraq and Afghanistan, they want to vote."

An absentee ballot application may be downloaded directly from the North Dakota Secretary of State's Web site. Lee Ann Oliver, state elections specialist, said the site's absentee ballot page has had close to 900 views.

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In the last presidential election, 292,249 North Dakotans voted, or 61.7 percent of the number of eligible voters. North Dakota has no voter registration, and the number of eligibles is estimated by the State Data Center in Fargo.

North Dakota's Democratic and Republican parties are both encouraging early voting, using e-mail and regular mailings to supply sympathetic voters with ballot applications.

"Every day, there's somebody who is going on our Web site and getting what they need," said Vern Thompson, the state Democratic director. In some areas, volunteers are going door to door with the necessary paperwork, Thompson said.

Local unions are distributing ballot applications and literature to members, said David Kemnitz, president of the state AFL-CIO.

The North Dakota Education Association is delivering applications to schools for distribution to teachers, spokesman Joe Westby said. The NDEA has more than 8,000 members, he said.

"This is really the first time we've undertaken an assertive effort to encourage absentee voting," Westby said. "We hope it helps."

Glatt said he expects the pace of absentee voting to pick up dramatically as the election draws nearer.

"We haven't seen the push yet. We haven't seen the snowbirds yet," Glatt said, referring to North Dakotans who move south for the winter and vote absentee. "It's going to get busier."

Forum reporter Gerry Gilmour contributed to this story. He can be reached at (701) 241-5560

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