Eighth Circuit Rules Mail-In Ballots in Minnesota Must Be Received by Election Day

In this July 29, 2020 file photo, Lisa Finander, right, checks that each ballot has the voter’s name on the ballot and mailing envelope and Laurie Mattila, left, checked that it was correct at Minneapolis Elections & Voter Services in Minneapolis. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP)

(CN) — In a late Thursday decision, the Eighth Circuit ruled that mailed-in ballots in Minnesota have to be in by Election Day or will go uncounted, striking down state election officials’ plan to accept ballots up to a week after.

The ruling is the result of one of several Republican lawsuits across the country seeking to limit expanded voting rights amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The 3-judge panel ruled 2-1 to grant an injunction to the Republican Party’s Electoral College nominees in their challenge to the state’s rule change.

U.S. Circuit Judges Bobby Shepherd, a George W. Bush appointee, and L. Steven Grasz, a Donald Trump appointee, wrote that Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon overstepped his bounds with the rule change.

“The Secretary’s instructions to count mail-in ballots received up to seven days after Election Day stand in direct contradiction to Minnesota election law governing presidential elections,” the ruling said.

“However well-intentioned and appropriate from a policy perspective in the context of a pandemic during a presidential election, it is not the province of a state executive official to re-write the state’s election code, at least as it pertains to selection of presidential electors,” the judges added.

The panel asks a federal court to order state officials to set aside late ballots and be “removed from vote totals in the event a final order is entered.”

The decision comes one day after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to address similar cases stemming from North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Simon said the appellate court’s decision “is a tremendous and unnecessary disruption to Minnesota’s election, just days before Election Day.”

“This last-minute change could disenfranchise Minnesotans who were relying on settled rules for the 2020 election — rules that were in place before the August 11 primary and were accepted by all political parties,” he said in a statement. “I won’t let any Minnesota voter be silenced. My mission is now to make sure all voters know that a federal court has suddenly changed the rules, and that their ballot needs to be received by Election Day.”

In a scorching dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Jane Kelly, a Barack Obama appointee, said the order harms Minnesotans.

“Any absentee voter who has not yet returned their ballot, and who is anxious about doing so in person because of COVID-19, especially given Minnesota’s rising case numbers, runs the substantial risk of being disenfranchised,” she wrote.

“The court’s injunctive relief will cause voter confusion and undermine Minnesotans’ confidence in the election process… as well as causing potential harm for voters,” she added. 

In the majority opinion, the judges noted the challenges the state faced in light of the ruling.

“The consequences of this order are not lost on us,” the opinion stated. “With that said, we conclude the challenges that will stem from this ruling are preferable to a postelection scenario where mail-in votes, received after the statutory deadline, are either intermingled with ballots received on time or invalidated without prior warning.”

Jennifer Carnahan, chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, praised the court’s decision.

“We applaud the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals for upholding the integrity of the election and affirming Election Day as November 3rd. The pandemic has caused upheaval in many areas of life but hiding behind the pandemic to manipulate the election process is not democratic, and we appreciate that our laws and interpretation of those laws matter,” she said in a statement.

The chair of Minnesota’s Democratic Party, Ken Martin, called the ruling “an attack on democracy brought about by a Republican Party desperate to stifle the voices of Minnesotans across our state.”

“This absurd and misguided opinion will toss out the rules that have been in place since before voting began in September,” he said in a statement. “Now, with just five days before election day, and Republicans surely heading for defeat at the polls, the Republican Party is responsible for potentially disenfranchising thousands of Minnesotans who were prepared to vote by mail in the coming days.”

Recent polling has Joe Biden leading President Donald Trump in the state. As of last week, 578,805 absentee ballots had not been returned.

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