Judge: Minnesota Congressional Election Back on Schedule

Minnesota Congresswoman Angie Craig at a campaign event in Apple Valley, Minn., in 2018. (Photo via Lorie Shaull/Wikipedia Commons)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — A Minnesota congressional race derailed by the death of a third-party candidate will take place on Nov. 3 after all, according to a federal judge’s ruling on Friday. 

A federal judge granted a preliminary injunction to Democratic Representative Angie Craig late Friday afternoon, finding that her effort to overturn a state law which would have postponed an election for her seat until February was likely to succeed on its merits.

The law, passed in 2013 as a response to the sudden death of Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone less than two weeks before an election in 2002, required Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon to put the brakes on the election for the Second Congressional District after Legal Marijuana Now Party candidate Adam Weeks’ death late in September. 

That “nominee vacancy” precaution, U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright ruled, isn’t among the exceptions to a federal rule which oversees the dates of general elections.

Wright, a Barack Obama appointee, found that the “vacancy in nomination” created by Weeks’ death was not a vacancy under the federal Vacancies Statute, which allows for special elections if an elected office is left vacant by a failure to elect, death, resignation or incapacitation. 

Craig’s Republican opponent, political newcomer Tyler Kistner, and Simon had argued at a Wednesday morning hearing that it was, and that Weeks’ death should be considered a “failure to elect.”

“The State of Minnesota cannot invent a failure to elect or create an exigent circumstance by refusing to certify the vote totals for Minnesota’s Second Congressional District,” Wright wrote. “Defendants characterize the failure to elect as arising from Weeks’s death. But the death of a candidate, without more, does not inevitably result in a failure to elect a representative.”

She also noted she did not believe the statute was enacted in bad faith, and mentioned that the 2002 plane crash which killed Wellstone and inspired the law actually did cause a vacancy “because an elected person, as opposed to an unelected nominee, had died.”

Wright also spent a section of her ruling considering the Purcell doctrine, guidance issued by the Supreme Court encouraging lower federal courts not to change election rules on the eve of an election. Attorneys for Kistner and Simon had raised concerns under that rule during Wednesday’s arguments, but Wright found that the injunction would restore, rather than disrupt, the status quo. 

“The preliminary injunction Plaintiffs seek does not fundamentally alter the nature or rules of the election, create voter confusion, or create an incentive for voters to remain away from the polls,” she wrote.

Simon issued a statement on Friday reflecting the change. A spokeswoman for his office, press secretary Risikat Adesaogun, said that any voters who had abstained from the 2nd District race after Simon’s announcement that votes would not be counted could still “claw back” and fix their ballots.

“There are folks who maybe have already voted absentee, and they left that particular contest blank assuming there would be a special election,” Adesaogun said. “We still have the clawback rule in Minnesota — people are able to contact their elections office and have their absentee ballot spoiled.” 

That option, she said, will be available until Oct. 20, two weeks before Election Day. After that date, the ballots will be anonymized and elections officials won’t be able to tell whose ballots are whose.

Craig’s campaign celebrated the decision in a statement. 

“A February special election would have deprived the voters of the Second District of their seat at the table during a crucial period in Congress. This is an enormous victory for the people of the Second District, who will still have an opportunity to make their voices heard in this election,” Craig said.

Kistner, meanwhile, announced his intent to appeal. 

“As recently as this week, the United States Supreme Court and Appeals Courts have ruled that state laws cannot be overturned on the eve of an election. We are confident that the Minnesota State Law will be upheld during the appeals process,” he said in a statement. 

The campaign, he said, had received word from several voters who said they had not voted in the race because of Simon’s announcement that votes would not be counted. 

“Additionally, we canceled numerous TV and digital advertising buys, and refrained from sending out voter contact mailings,” he added.

Adesaogun said that the decision on whether or not to appeal the decision was still in the works.

Legal Marijuana Now Party’s new candidate, onetime Independence Party candidate Paula Overby, said in a statement that the decision will hurt the democratic process.

“The party that claims to be defending democracy has done the most to attack and disqualify third party candidates,” she said. “Of course I am extremely disappointed with the decision of the court. It will certainly disenfranchise voters and further erode peoples faith in the integrity of our electoral process.”

Overby has been a recurring figure in Minnesota’s third parties in the last several years. She ran for the 2nd District seat as an Independence Party candidate in 2014 and as an independent in 2016, for U.S. Senate on the Green Party ticket in 2018, and recently took second place in the Democratic primary for Tina Smith’s U.S. Senate Seat, pulling 5.3% to Smith’s 87.1%.

Overby’s name does not appear on the ballot and Adesaogun confirmed that it was too late for the Secretary of State’s office to reprint them.

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