ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Attorneys for President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign argued Friday before a Minnesota judge to prevent the relaxation of restrictions on absentee voting in the state.
Ramsey County District Judge Sarah Grewing oversaw a doubleheader of hearings covering election issues on Friday morning. Republican Party organizations including the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee sought to intervene in two cases – brought by the NAACP and the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans against Secretary of State Steve Simon – in which the plaintiffs challenged the state’s requirement that mail-in ballots be signed by a witness and sought to extend mail-in ballot counting in November’s election.
The plaintiff groups argued that voters should not be required to risk exposure to Covid-19 in order to cast a ballot. They sought Grewing’s approval of consent decrees waiving the witness requirement and, in the case of the NAACP, a preliminary injunction requiring Simon’s office to mail ballots to all registered voters 30 days before the election.
The proposed consent decrees debated at Friday’s hearings are the latest in a protracted, multi-jurisdictional controversy over absentee balloting in Minnesota. They were preceded by another one suspending the witness requirement for Minnesota’s August primary elections, which Grewing approved in June despite outcry from Republicans.
Besides the two cases before Grewing, a similar case is also pending in Minnesota federal court. Shortly after Grewing approved the primary election consent decree, U.S. District Judge Eric Tostrud declined to give his approval to a similar consent decree for the August primary. That decision, in a case brought by Minnesota’s League of Women Voters, didn’t overrule Grewing’s approval of the other consent decrees, and the witness requirement has been waived for Tuesday’s primary.
Still, Grewing said the ruling from Tostrud, a Donald Trump appointee, was on her mind.
“To have a judge down the street, in another jurisdiction, rule the opposite way is something that gives the court great pause,” she said Friday.
GOP attorney John Gore of the international firm Jones Day emphasized the federal court decision and argued that the consent decrees were a way for Simon, a Democrat, to increase the ease of absentee voting without consulting the legislature, an allegation the secretary has persistently denied.
“As we’ve shown the court, that proposed consent decree contradicts the weight of authority from courts across the country,” Gore said.
The witness requirement, the attorney said, was necessary to prevent voter fraud. Those afraid of Covid-19 exposure could have their ballots witnessed with low risk in person or with no risk via Zoom, he argued.
Attorneys for the plaintiff took issue with those ideas. ACLU attorney Theresa Lee argued that the Minnesota Constitution provides protections to voters that extend beyond the U.S. Constitution, meaning Grewing’s mandate was different from Tostrud’s.
“The Trump campaign may not like that the Minnesota Constitution provides more protections to its citizens than their interpretation of the federal constitution, but it does,” she said.
Republicans found themselves playing catch-up at the hearing, having sought to intervene in the cases only after the first consent decree was filed. The parties in each case cast doubt on what the proposed intervenors’ interests in the cases were, and why it had taken so long to stake their claim on such a time-sensitive issue.
Gore argued that because his clients were competing for votes in Minnesota, and wanted to uphold the witness requirement that Simon had declined to defend, their interests were a mirror image of the organizations seeking to overturn that requirement.
That contention drew fire.
“What the Trump campaign can’t bring itself to say is that it wants to avoid competing for votes,” Lee said. “They’re not able to explain why it’s in their interest to make it harder for our clients to vote.”
Assistant Attorney General Cicely Miltich also expressed concern over the precedent that could be set by allowing the intervention.
“The secretary’s concern is about future cases, that every time a voting statute is challenged or a regulation is challenged … every political party can come in and intervene, any voters can come in and intervene,” she said.
Assistant Attorney General Jason Marisam, also arguing on behalf of Simon’s office, pointed out that Trump himself recognized the dangers of voting in person in a recent tweet in which he suggested delaying the presidential election. While Marisam disagreed with the proposed delay, he said “the president believes there are legitimate concerns about voter safety in this pandemic.”
Asked about the tweet, Gore said he wasn’t sure that he had seen it.
Noting the need for swift action in both cases, Grewing said she expected to make rulings by the end of the day on Monday.