State Law Makes Some Minnesota Mail Ballots Too Late to Count in Special Election

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Several hundred voters living in mail-only precincts did not have their votes counted recently because Minnesota state law regarding special elections meant they did not receive their ballots in time to vote and return them. The Duluth News-Tribune has more:

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon tweeted dismay Tuesday about voter disenfranchisement covered by the News Tribune.

More than 400 mail-in votes from rural areas in the Senate District 11 special election went uncounted in the primary earlier this month, and Simon predicted the same could happen in the upcoming general election.

“Hundreds of MN voters may be disenfranchised next week because of an outdated state law,” Simon tweeted. “The tight timeframe for special elections means people who receive their ballot by mail might not get it fast enough to mail back in time to be counted. The legislature needs to change that.”

In a news release sent Tuesday afternoon, Simon said he was working with the Minnesota legislature to “fix the timeline for carrying out future special elections,” adding that some voters in Senate District 11’s mail-ballot only precincts were unable to return their ballots on or before Election Day, leaving their votes uncounted under Minnesota law.

“I know that county elections officials are working hard to get ballots out to voters,” said Secretary Simon. “This is a bad situation and I trust the legislature is going to make necessary changes to prevent this from happening again. For this election, if you’re a voter in SD11 and you’re concerned about your ballot being received in time, please contact your local elections officials to determine available alternatives to mailing that ballot.”

The DFL’s Stu Lourey will join Republican Jason Rarick and Legal Marijuana Now candidate John Birrenbach in the special general election on Feb. 5.

In the primary, Lourey defeated Michelle Lee to win the Democratic-Farmer-Labor nomination. But on Monday, the News Tribune reported that more than 400 mail-in votes from Carlton and Pine counties, home to most of the Senate District 11 voters, failed to make it to their auditor offices in time to be counted. Ballots received after the fact remain sealed and uncounted by law.

Unlike other recent stories, this isn’t a case of slow delivery or a problem at a local election office – but a direct function of state law:

Sources involved in the story blamed the truncated timeline between the state senate vacancy and the special election.

On Jan. 3, former Gov. Mark Dayton ordered the special election to fill the seat vacated by Tony Lourey after his appointment to Gov. Tim Walz’s cabinet that same day. State statute requires a special election to be held within 35 days of the vacancy.

Many voters in Carlton County, in particular, didn’t receive their ballots until the Friday and Saturday prior to the Jan. 22 primary — allowing for almost no time to return their ballots, especially given a national holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, falling on the Monday before the Tuesday primary.

Senate District 11 serves Carlton and Pine counties as well as small parts of St. Louis and Kanabec counties.

Unfortunately, it appears that the problem is very likely to recur in the special general:

Only Carlton and Pine counties feature mail-ballot precincts in the district, totaling slightly more than 3,000 registered mail-in voters. Mail-in balloting has become a popular mechanism throughout the state for some of its rural-most areas.

Auditors in Carlton and Pine counties confirmed that mail-in ballots for the general election went out in full by Monday. Simon’s tweet suggested he didn’t think that would be enough time to avoid a repeat of the primary scenario.

Years ago, research regarding military and overseas ballots revealed that 45 days was the minimum amount of time necessary to ensure the return of timely and valid ballots – a requirement that is now part of federal law. This case reveals that similar review of state laws regarding timing of elections is necessary in order to prevent voters from being left (sorry, Minnesota) out in the cold.

Stay warm – and stay tuned …

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