Minnesota Supreme Court will review absentee ballot case

Published 1:42 pm Thursday, August 13, 2020

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By Brian Bakst

The Minnesota Supreme Court has agreed to speed up consideration of a legal challenge around absentee ballot rules for the November general election.

President Donald Trump’s campaign, the state Republican Party and several other Republican campaign committees appealed a lower court ruling connected to absentee voting for the upcoming election.

In an order issued Wednesday, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea informed the parties that the case will go before the Supreme Court on Sept. 3. Written arguments are due beginning next week.

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Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a requirement that people voting remotely get a witness to certify their eligibility has been suspended. That was the result of a consent decree reached between the secretary of state and groups who argued it was an undue burden.

A Ramsey County judge signed off on the agreement as well as one making ballots postmarked by Election Day eligible for counting in the days after.

“The suspension of the witness and application requirements for all absentee ballots during the pendency of the COVID-19 epidemic is non-partisan in nature, because the benefits of such relief will accrue equivalently to all voters, whether they cast their votes for Democrats, Republicans, Independents or the Green Party—no voters would be obligated to endanger themselves and their community to exercise their right to vote,” Judge Sara Grewing wrote in her Aug. 3 ruling, which was appealed this week.

Grewing addressed arguments that COVID-19 conditions are too uncertain to allow for alterations of longstanding rules for the coming election.

“The president’s own admissions, as well as the prediction of experts that COVID-19 will likely surge in the fall as the election coincides with the return of cold and flu season, lead the Court to conclude that the safety concerns for the ballot box are not so speculative,” she wrote.

The Republican lawyers urged a ruling by Sept. 9 because absentee ballots will start going out nine days later.

“By eliminating the witness requirement for the November general election, the district court’s order directs election officials to count absentee ballots that would be invalid under Minnesota law,” Republican campaign attorney Benjamin Ellison wrote in his petition to the court for accelerated review.

Several legal challenges to voting requirements in Minnesota are working their way through the courts.

In a related development Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block a similar relaxation of ballot witness rules in a Rhode Island case.