ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Donald Trump’s re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee have intervened in a suit challenging Minnesota’s witness requirements for absentee ballots.
The provision, which requires a signature from a notary public or another registered Minnesota voter on all absentee ballots, was waived Wednesday when Ramsey County Judge Sara Grewing approved a consent decree between Secretary of State Steve Simon and the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans.
Alliance has brought a lawsuit to challenge that requirement generally, but especially in light of the pandemic’s expected impact on in-person voting.
Simon, a member of Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor Party, agreed not to enforce the provision during the primary. The decree sparked outrage among state Republicans, some of whom said the courts were being used to circumvent the state Legislature.
“Minnesota Democrats have made it clear that their negotiations at the State Capitol are not being done in good faith, with Simon circumventing the legislative process to manipulate Minnesota election laws,” Minnesota GOP chair Jennifer Carnahan said in a statement. “It is beyond concerning to see what lengths the Democrats are willing to go to in order to win in November.”
Simon objected to that idea, saying that the legal proceedings had nothing to do with his views on policy and that Grewing had applied all necessary scrutiny to the decree.
“Consent decrees don’t just automatically happen. Parties to a lawsuit don’t just agree to them, and then they spring to life,” he said. “A judge can only [approve a consent decree] if the judge is satisfied that the agreement is fair, reasonable, adequate and in the public interest, and we had a judge in Minnesota make that finding, or satisfy herself that that is the case.”
Grewing will not have the final say, however: U.S. District Court Judge Eric Tostrud, a Trump appointee, will hold a fairness hearing for another consent decree next Tuesday. That decree, negotiated by Simon and the League of Women Voters, would also require Simon to stop enforcing the provision. Both agreements would also allow absentee votes to be counted if received within two days of Election Day.
The hearing in that case was originally scheduled for late Thursday morning, but was moved last-minute to Tuesday after the RNC, Trump’s campaign and the Minnesota GOP filed an emergency motion to push it back. The motion, filed by Richard Morgan of the Minneapolis firm Lewis Brisbois, claimed that the decree would significantly injure the Republican groups if approved.
It’s unclear what will happen if Tostrud and Grewing come to different conclusions on the consent decrees. A representative from Simon’s office, asked about the issue by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, said that question would be left for the court.
Voting rights groups and election officials in Minnesota have been fighting for months to make absentee voting easier, especially after election officials in states like Wisconsin and Georgia struggled to cope with under-resourced polling places and enormous numbers of absentee ballots.
“I look at Georgia and Wisconsin as warnings to the rest of the country, and to Minnesota, as to what can happen if there are disruptions in an election,” Simon said.
He clarified that while he saw primary elections in those states as cautionary tales, he didn’t lay that entirely at state officials’ feet.
“Some of the things that happened in those states are beyond the control of election officials,” he said. “It’s fashionable to question motives when that’s in fact not legitimate.
“We’re trying to hold elections in a pandemic, and that presents a lot of extra challenges,” he added.
Simon’s office has been barraged with Covid-19 related suits this year from organizations seeking to avoid long lines, raised infection risks or depressed voter turnout in Minnesota’s elections.
The American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP have also filed a lawsuit seeking to waive the witness requirement. Those groups, who also requested that absentee ballots be mailed to every registered voter, have not reached an agreement with Simon.
Opponents to that idea, including Carnahan, cite concerns about voter fraud.
“There is a reason a witness signature is required when voting by absentee ballot — to prevent fraud. It is unconscionable that Secretary Simon and Governor Walz have chosen to go around the legislature — which is currently in session — to change a law that will remove these necessary safeguards,” Carnahan said in a statement.
Minnesota convicted 11 people for voter fraud in 2016, primarily felons who said they didn’t know they were not allowed to vote.
Absentee voting in Minnesota’s August 11 primaries is scheduled to begin June 26. Simon said he’s confident that his office will be “nimble and quick” about getting out word of any changes to procedure, despite the protracted timeline.