Minnesota Settlement on Primary Mail Ballots Sparks Controversy

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NOTE: An eagle-eyed reader noted that the original image on this post had the wrong date for Minnesota statehood. I love pretty pictures but accuracy is important, too. Fixed!

New consent decrees on mail ballots for Minnesota’s August primary are drawing criticism from lawmakers who believe it is a tactic for the Secretary of State to use litigation to achieve policy changes he was unable to get enacted. The Star Tribune has more:

Republican lawmakers sharply rebuked legal agreements Wednesday between DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon and two citizens groups that would ease absentee ballot rules during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agreements, first announced Tuesday, allow voters to submit their mail-in or absentee ballots in the Aug. 11 primary without witness signatures. Election officials also will count ballots that arrive within two days of the primary, as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.

Ramsey County District Judge Sara Grewing signed off Wednesday on a consent decree to move forward with the changes in a lawsuit brought by one of the groups, the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans Educational Fund. An agreement reached in a separate case brought by the League of Women Voters is pending in federal court.

Legislators are frustrated that the consent decrees make key changes to a state law signed earlier this year and say it will complicate localities’ preparations for the August vote:

Republican lawmakers said both deals circumvent the legislative process and bend a state election law negotiated by the Legislature during the regular session earlier this year.

“Preparations are already well underway for the primary,” said Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake. “What is that going to cause, in terms of chaos and costs, if all of a sudden by his own hand he has acquiesced to these two groups and thrown uncertainty into the mix?”

The agreements with Simon stem from lawsuits the groups filed against the state in May. They were part of a wave of cases brought in several states seeking to address concerns about voter safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

Early absentee and in-person voting for the August primaries begins June 26. With just nine days to inform people about the changes, Simon said his office will post information on its website and work with local government officials to get out the word.

“It’s too late to reprint the ballot forms,” Simon said, adding that his office can instruct counties and cities to add inserts with ballots notifying the public of the changes.

Part of Republicans’ frustrations stem from the fact that the changes are policies that the SoS generally supports:

Simon has been a leading proponent of voting by mail. He had pushed the Legislature this year to expand mail-in voting for the August primaries and the November general election but faced resistance from GOP lawmakers citing concerns about fraud.

Despite the GOP objections to the mail-in ballot changes, Simon said it’s not usual for consent decrees to change election laws. He added that a judge had to sign off on the agreement and find it in the public’s best interest.

There is one more pending lawsuit in federal court, raising the possibility of dueling decrees – and the state will wait and see what happens before deciding on a further course of action (including the possibility of similar changes for the November general election):

While the state judge approved the deal in the case brought by the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans, the federal case brought by the League of Women Voters has a hearing scheduled Thursday. One remaining question is what happens if a federal judge issues a different decision.

“We’ll leave that discussion for court,” said John Stiles, a spokesman for state Attorney General Keith Ellison, who represents Simon’s office.

An agreement has not been reached in a third lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP. That case also aimed to suspend the witness requirements but goes a step further by requesting that Simon send absentee ballots to all registered voters, a measure that Simon had sought in the Legislature. ACLU-MN attorney David McKinney said his group will continue to push in court for both of those changes for the November election.

Proponents of the change praised the changes, especially the removal of the witnessing requirement:

Gary Severson, a board member of the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans, said the agreement to temporarily waive witness requirements is “good news for thousands of Minnesota voters.” Severson, 72, is immunocompromised because of diabetes and doesn’t want to vote in person. While his wife can act as his witness, he said others are concerned about meeting the state’s witness requirement to vote by mail.

Minnesota generally requires that witnesses be other registered voters or notaries public. Minnesota is one of 12 states that require a witness, Simon said.

“There [are] too many that that would be a burden for,” Severson said. “It’s a lot more common than anybody realizes.”

Severson also said post offices will be swamped with absentee ballots this year, and the extension will help alleviate that. The next step for his organization is to push for the same changes to the November general election as well, he said.

A leading GOP lawmaker (and the immediate past Secretary of State) assailed the deal as politics and vowed to seek a legislative solution to procedures her party believes will lead to increased fraud:

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said the organizations suing Simon are his “liberal friends” and that election officials should follow the laws that are in place. She said the GOP-led state Senate is reviewing its options for intervening in the situation.

The Minnesota Republican Party also condemned the action.

“There is a reason a witness signature is required when voting by absentee ballot — to prevent fraud,” GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan said in a statement, calling it “unconscionable” for Simon to go around the Legislature and agree to the changes.

While the witness requirement is getting most of the attention, the postmark rule and extra two days could be even more significant given the challenges that other states have experienced with delivery and return of mail ballots this year. Needless to say, the argument is likely to continue in the Land of 10,000 Lakes … stay tuned!

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