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Agreement to Suspend Witness Requirement for Absentee Voters During Primary Election

Updated: Jun 25, 2020

On June 16, 2020, the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit, including the League of Women Voters of Minnesota Education Fund, filed with the court a proposed consent decree whereby "Minnesota’s Secretary of State will issue guidance instructing local election officials to send a notice to all absentee voters, informing them that their votes will count in the August primary regardless of whether they obtain a witness signature." The League of Women Voters of the United States (LWVUS) issued a press release stating that "[t]oday’s agreement is a victory for voters across the state, especially senior voters and voters with underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to complications from COVID-19."

The lawsuit was filed in May 2020, "challenging the state’s witness requirement for absentee ballot signatures." The plaintiffs assert that "[a]mid the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, many voters cannot obtain a ballot witness without compromising their health. Further, the state’s requirements for who may witness absentee ballots are too restrictive and thus violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution." A press release issued when the lawsuit was filed notes that "[v]oters of color, senior voters, and voters with underlying conditions are at greater risk of complications from the COVID-19 virus. The current law requiring an absentee ballot witness unnecessarily exposes them to greater risk of contracting this deadly virus. In addition, the requirement to have the witness be a registered MN voter is also a barrier for college students and others living out of state temporarily."

The judge overseeing the case delayed a hearing regarding the proposed consent decree in order to allow the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee, and the Republican Party of Minnesota, to attempt to intervene in the case. The motion of the parties seeking to intervene, filed June 20, asserts that "[a]lthough COVID-19 poses a serious health risk to some people, the witnessing requirement does not require any unsafe or unreasonable actions by voters." They argue "that Minnesota is now in Phase III of its reopening plan, meaning the State deems it safe to visit (with social-distancing practices) retail stores, gyms, daycares, schools, churches, restaurants, bars, and other venues, and to attend outdoor gatherings of 25 people or less and indoor gatherings of 10 people or less." They contend in a memorandum that the consent decree would "threaten to confuse voters and undermine confidence in the electoral process," and those seeking to intervene would "be forced to spend substantial resources informing Republican voters of changes in the law, fighting inevitable confusion." They further argue in a brief that "[t]he parties’ proposed consent decree is neither fair nor reasonable nor legal. It suspends a perfectly constitutional law that Plaintiffs had no hope of enjoining. It appears to be, not an arm’s-length deal between adversaries, but a sweetheart deal that gives Plaintiffs everything and Minnesotans nothing."

In a separate lawsuit filed in Ramsey County District Court, a judge signed a consent decree on June 17 whereby the Secretary of State agreed that with respect to the primary election, the witness signature requirement will be suspended and ballots received within two days after election day will be accepted if the return envelope is postmarked by election day, August 11. The lead plaintiff in that case is the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans. A press release regarding that consent decree is available here.

Update: On June 23 a judge allowed the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee, and the Republican Party of Minnesota to intervene in the federal lawsuit involving LWV Minnesota. The judge rejected the proposed consent decree, stating that it is overly broad because it suspends the witness requirement for all Minnesota absentee voters, rather than merely those who are at extreme risk due to COVID-19. However, a state district court judge has already approved a similar consent decree in a separate case. Despite the conflicting decisions, the Secretary of State's office stated on June 23 that mailed absentee ballots for the primary election will be accepted even if they lack a witness signature and ballots received within two days after election day will be accepted if the return envelope is postmarked by election day, August 11. Note that for now, these changes apply only to the primary election.

Media coverage regarding the agreement and the lawsuits as a whole is available via the following links:

June 24 Pioneer Press article

June 23 Associated Press article

June 23 Courthouse News article June 18 MinnPost article

June 18 Courthouse News article

June 17 MPR article

June 17 MN Reformer article

June 17 Star Tribune article

June 17 Associated Press article

June 17 Pioneer Press article

June 17 Bring Me The News article

June 12 MinnPost article

May 19 Star Tribune article

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