Minnesota Waives Witness Requirement for November Mail-In Ballots

Voting booths stand ready two years ago in downtown Minneapolis for the opening of early voting in Minnesota. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)

 ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Minnesotans voting by mail in November won’t need a witness signature, according to a district judge’s approval of a decision by the secretary of state.

Ramsey County District Judge Sara Grewing approved a consent decree between the NAACP and Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat, early Monday evening. The consent decree suspends a requirement under Minnesota law that absentee ballots be signed by a witness with a Minnesota address. The NAACP argued this posed an unconstitutional burden in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

 The ACLU of Minnesota, whose attorneys represented the NAACP, celebrated the ruling.

 “We’re pleased that the court approved this agreement, which will remove barriers to voting in the general election for Minnesota voters, especially people who live alone or who are at high risk for Covid-19,” ACLU attorney David McKinney said in a statement. “No one should have to choose between their health and their fundamental right to vote.”

NAACP Minnesota-Dakotas Area president William Jordan Jr. agreed. “This decision is a step in the right direction that places voters and constituents at the center of elections,” he said in a statement. “As we continue to navigate through this Covid-19 pandemic and alternate reality, we must continue to be malleable to the needs of the community. The health and safety of the electorate during this critical time should be of great concern to all of us.” 

Republicans – including Donald Trump’s presidential re-election campaign – have opposed the witness-requirement waiver and moved to intervene in the case. Attorney John Gore of the international firm Jones Day argued during a hearing on Friday that removing the requirement could make voter fraud easier and that those who lived alone could have their mail-in ballots signed via Zoom.

Grewing cast doubt on this idea in a memorandum filed alongside her 30-page ruling.

“Even assuming Ms. Wagner, who is 78 years old and recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, will have access to a computer or smart phone and could secure a Zoom account to connect with someone to witness her ballot, it is unclear to this Court how a voter could e-notarize the back of her absentee ballot,” Grewing wrote, referencing one of the NAACP’s co-plaintiffs.

“The Committees’ argument further strains the limits of reasonableness when the Court considers that nearly a quarter of households in Minnesota do not have internet access and the vast majority of public libraries, which may otherwise provide internet access to those who lack it, are closed during the pandemic.”

Grewing also denied the Republicans’ motion to intervene as a matter of right, finding that they failed to demonstrate an interest that would be impaired by non-enforcement of the witness requirement and that their claim to be the “mirror image” of the NAACP failed.

“The NAACP’s interests include enhancing voting rights, improving access to the ballot box, supporting voter turnout, and protecting and increasing participation in free and fair elections,” she wrote in her ruling. “If the Court were to accept the Committees’ ‘mirror image’ reasoning, it would necessitate a finding that the Donald J. Trump for America Campaign has a right to intervene because, as the mirror image of the NAACP’s interest, its interests include limiting voting rights, decreasing access to the ballot box, suppressing voter turnout and decreasing voter participation in elections.

“Such a finding,” she added, “is an anathema to the interests of justice and would merit denial of the Committee’s motion on that argument alone.”

Grewing’s decision ran counter to one by federal judge Eric Tostrud, a Trump appointee, who declined to approve a similar consent decree for the state’s August 11 primaries.

Grewing addressed that ruling in her memorandum, finding that Minnesota’s voter protections supported the NAACP’s claims.

However, she rejected a motion for a temporary injunction requiring Simon to send absentee ballots to all of Minnesota’s voters. “Requiring voters to apply for an absentee ballot if they want one reduces the serious risk of chaos in voting,” she wrote. “The absentee ballot also ensures that those voters who wish to vote absentee receive a ballot where they currently live, instead of having one be automatically mailed to an address under which they were previously registered.”

The decree also allows for ballots to be counted later in November, though all must still be postmarked before Election Day. That has raised concerns that the results of some races will be delayed as the U.S. Postal Service struggles with budget cuts and badly slowed mail delivery, according to a July 14 article in the Washington Post.

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