Updated 11:27 a.m. Thursday
Scott County officials were planning to move an early voting booth from the Government Center across the street to the Law Enforcement Center in Shakopee, sparking criticism because the county sheriff is on the ballot, and the LEC houses the Scott County Sheriff’s Office.
An email went out Thursday notifying county employees of the move, prompting concern about the propriety of having people vote near the sheriff’s office, when Sheriff Luke Hennen is on the ballot. He is being challenged by Jason Arras, commander of a drug task force. A “concerned citizen” who did not want to be named alerted the newspaper, saying they were concerned it may be an attempt to influence voters.
But within minutes after the email went out to county employees, the county attorney’s office raised concerns about a different issue, according to County Auditor Cindy Geis.
“Within about 10 minutes, we got a notification that ‘You can’t use that facility’,” Geis said.
She said the county attorney's office alerted them to a state law banning polling locations from being within 50 feet of peace officers. Scott County Attorney Ron Hocevar said a civil employee did email Geis, but she misunderstood; it wouldn't have been against any law to have the voting booth in the LEC, but would have been difficult in terms of traffic flow.
"It wouldn't have been illegal," Hocevar said. "It just worked out better, campus-wise, not having it in the LEC."
One of Shakopee’s polling locations, by the way, is in the Shakopee Police Department, but it’s too late to change it, Geis said.
“We don’t establish the polling locations,” she said. “We don’t have any authority in that.”
The decision to move early voters to the LEC was made early this year, Geis said — “Way before we even knew which candidates were on the ballot.” But the notification to staff just went out this week to ask employees to be “kind and respectful of voters” and park in the employee parking lot rather than the streets near the LEC.
Geis said the intent was not to influence voters in the sheriff’s race.
“We don’t want to influence the sheriff’s race,” she said. “We are not using it to make sure that we aren’t influencing any voters. … We just try to conduct a fair election.”
Although County Administrator Gary Shelton has publicly endorsed Hennen, raising concern, he wasn’t speaking for all of the county, she said.
“Gary Shelton spoke for himself,” she said. “In my role, I can’t indicate my support… for either candidate. I keep that private.”
While the Valley News fielded concerns about having the voting booth in the LEC, Geis said she had not.
“I have not heard from anybody other than the county attorney,” she said.
The public had not yet been notified of the LEC location; signs were going to go up today before the decision was reversed, Geis said.
“The email went out yesterday and the decision to move it was made yesterday,” she said.
County officials want to move the early voting location because in 2016, over 4,500 people showed up to vote in the six days before the election, creating lines in the Government Center that went out down the hallway, into the lobby and out the door.
“It’s probably against fire code to have that many people in the hallway at one time,” Geis said. “We had a traffic jam. So we’re going to try to get around that. “
Early voting numbers are exceeding 2016 numbers, she said. The Saturday before the 2016 general election, the line went out the door and down the sidewalk.
“It was horrible,” Geis said. “We knew right way for any of these even-year elections, we were going to have to rethink how we do direct balloting.”
The early voting booth is now tentatively moving to a former funeral home across the street from both the Government Center and LEC, where jurors normally assemble.
“We are setting up the conference room as we speak,” Geis said. They will test the bandwidth today to make sure it works well, and if it doesn’t, the booth will have to stay in the Government Center “and we’ll make do,” she said.