UPDATED: Olson pulls ahead of Vene in Beltrami County District 2 race

After absentee ballots were added to the total, the incumbent pulled away to a presumed victory.

Olson and Vene web mugs.jpg
Reed Olson, left, and Joe Vene.

Editor's note: Beltrami County officials announced on Wednesday morning that due to an error some absentee ballots were not correctly added to the Secretary of State's website, causing vote counts to be listed inaccurately. Vote totals now reflect the official winner of the county District 2 race.

When the precinct tally came in early Wednesday morning, it appeared that challenger Joe Vene had ousted incumbent Reed Olson by a mere two votes in the battle for the District 2 seat on the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners. But that all changed when absentee votes from the City of Bemidji were added on Wednesday afternoon. Those votes had somehow been missing from the early totals listed on the Secretary of State's website.

The latest totals show Olson returning to the board with a 2,247 to 1,881 advantage. Olson apparently won all three city wards, losing only in the Eckles Township precinct. The incumbent outpaced Vene 521-318 in Bemidji Ward 1, 549-49` in Ward 2 and 745-593 in Ward 4. Eckles voters gave Vene a 479-432 edge.

"As I understand it, the secretary of state website is in error," Olson wrote. on his Facebook page Wednesday morning. "None of the city's absentee ballots are reflected in the vote totals. This race is a long way from being over. I am confident that when all votes are tallied, I will have won with a sizable lead."

The first three precincts from the City of Bemidji were reported on the Secretary of State site, giving Olson a 45-vote advantage. But when Eckles Township votes were reported at 4:12 a.m., Vene's 47-vote advantage there put him ahead by two at 1,296 to 1,294.


The race was a repeat from 2016, when challenger Olson ousted incumbent Vene by a slim 77-vote margin.

Olson, then a Bemidji City Councilor, defeated three-term Commissioner Vene by 1,845 votes to 1,768 four years ago.

Of the three precincts that reported results late Tuesday night, Olson prevailed in only one, winning Bemidji Ward 1 by 51 votes. Vene had one more vote than Olson in Bemidji Ward 2 and five more than Olson in Bemidji Ward 4.

Vene, who served on the County Board from 2004 to 2016, said he was inspired to run again by constituents.

“I received calls from many people,” he said. “I hesitated and thought about it, but the calls kept coming in. So I thought, ‘My goodness, I do have an extensive background in county government, both in local, state and national levels.’ So as the calls kept coming in I thought, ‘Well, you have endurance over time, you have time yet to dedicate to the task, and if that many people are calling you it would probably be good public service once again.’

“It’s always been about public service, not about me,” Vene said, “but how we can all work together to elevate the human condition. I want to return to my community, state and nation something of which it has given me and mine through my public service.”

Vene said government overreach is one of his concerns.

“We need to be growing as a free enterprise system without unnecessary restraints,” he said.


Olson, who stands to become County Board Chair if he is re-elected, said the coronavirus pandemic is at the heart of the county’s issues.

“Any of the issues that we normally face in the county are now being compounded by everything COVID,” Olson said. “I’m concerned about the effect that it’s having on business, workers, landlords, tenants and homeowners, and the stresses that it’s putting on people. We’re exacerbating situations that already exist. We already have a tight rental market, we already have high poverty rates in Bemidji and Beltrami County, and this is all compounding that. We’re going to have issues relating to housing and employment because of COVID. We’re going to have increased housing instability. Increased business foreclosure and unemployment. The county’s role is to do everything we can to support the community health director and her staff as they work with partner agencies and keep the community safe.”

Olson, 44, is co-owner and operator of the Wild Hare Bistro in Bemidji; executive director of the Nameless Coalition for the Homeless

Vene, 81, is retired. He worked as adjunct faculty at BSU from 1975-2004 and superintendent of the Northwest Minnesota Juvenile Center from 1981-2001.

Dennis Doeden, former publisher of the Bemidji Pioneer, is a feature reporter. He is a graduate of Metropolitan State University with a degree in Communications Management.
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