Minnesota waives absentee ballot witness signature mandate

Minnesota will waive its witness requirements for absentee ballots for the statewide primary election in August under the settlement of two lawsuits sparked by the health threat from the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuits were filed by political arms of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota and the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans. A Ramsey County judge signed off on the consent decree with the retirees Wednesday while a federal judge scheduled a hearing for Thursday on the league’s case.

Republican lawmakers complained that Democratic Secretary of State Steve Simon overstepped his authority by settling. “The lawsuits and agreements are a flagrant abuse of the courts and complete runaround of the Legislature,” they said in a statement.

Under the settlements, Simon agreed that mailed-in absentee ballots for the primary will be accepted even if they don’t have witness signatures, and that ballots received within two days of the Aug. 11 primary date will be accepted as long as they’re postmarked by Election Day. Minnesota usually requires that the witness be a registered voter or notary public.

The settlements don’t apply to the November general election; the plaintiffs sought a quick answer for the primary because early absentee and in-person voting begins June 26. League spokeswoman Kayla Vix said her group is keeping the case open in case they decide to pursue it for the general election. Alliance spokesman Lisa Cutler said they’re “taking this one step at a time” and not saying whether they’ll seek a similar settlement for November.

The lawsuits were among several filed across the country in recent months over how citizens can safely cast their ballots — including at-risk older citizens who live alone and want to keep their distance from people who could expose them to COVID-19. The outcomes could affect how many people turn out to vote in elections across the country, including the presidential race. States where cases are pending include Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. The U.S. Justice Department argued Monday that Alabama’s witness requirement does not violate the Voting Rights Act.

Simon had asked the Legislature to switch Minnesota entirely to voting by mail for the primary and the Nov. 3 general election to make absentee voting easier and safer during the pandemic. But he accepted less after GOP lawmakers balked, arguing that a wholesale switch would raise the risk of voter fraud. Simon is now urging Minnesotans to take advantage of the state’s easy procedures for absentee and early voting instead.

Simon’s spokeswoman, Risikat Adesaogun, said he had no comment on the settlements because the litigation is pending. “However, it is important to note that the actions the office is taking are a common part of legal procedure,” she said.

Michelle Witte, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota, said it’s “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. ”

Another lawsuit, on behalf of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, remains pending in state court. Those groups are asking that absentee ballots be sent to all registered Minnesota voters, as well as a suspension of the witness requirement.

Republican Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, of Big Lake, a former secretary of state who chairs a committee with jurisdiction over elections, denounced the settlements as a “blatantly partisan” attempt to circumvent the Legislature that went “above and beyond” what lawmakers had approved.

GOP Rep. Jim Nash, of Waconia, the lead Republican on a House elections subcommittee, accused Simon of “colluding with a liberal organization to undermine our election laws.”