GOP lawmakers blast Secretary of State Simon for deal in voting lawsuits

Minn. Secretary of State Steve Simon discusses election security issues.
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon speaks in his office in March 2018 in St. Paul. Minnesota’s witness requirement for absentee ballots would be suspended for the Aug. 11 primary under an agreement reached between the state and the plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the current rules.
Steve Karnowski | AP 2018

Updated: 6 p.m.

Republicans are blasting DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon for making a deal in a lawsuit over mail-in ballots. 

The League of Women Voters of Minnesota Education Fund and the Minnesota Alliance For Retired Americans Educational Fund sued the state separately last month. They claimed the state’s witness requirement for absentee voting would put people’s health at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. One case went to Ramsey County, while the other went to federal court.

Rather than fighting the suits, Simon’s office made an agreement with the groups, and that has triggered criticism from some Republican lawmakers. 

The witness requirement is a real concern for many people, said Nick Harper, attorney and civic engagement director for the League of Women Voters-Minnesota.

“Definitely voters that have underlying health conditions and elderly voters,” Harper said. “Mostly, there are a lot of voters that might live alone or they might not live with another registered voter in Minnesota because your witness has to be a registered Minnesota voter.”

Under the agreement, all mail ballots from registered voters will be accepted without requiring a witness signature, and ballots will be accepted two days after Election Day, if they are postmarked before Election Day.

The secretary of state must issue guidance to local election officials and voters about the change. The agreement applies only to the Aug. 11 primary and not the November general election. It leaves the door open for further litigation.

The timing of the agreement is critical, Harper said.

“It’s important to know that absentee voting begins June 26,” he said. “So, we’re looking for clarity before absentee voting begins.”

A Ramsey County judge signed off on one of the agreements. A federal judge has not yet acted. A hearing is scheduled Thursday in U.S. District Court.

Simon said the law compelled this result under the circumstances of a pandemic. There wasn’t time for drawn out legal arguments, he said.

“There was a lot of risk here — risk for the voters in being confused and not having settled rules in time for the start of the absentee ballot period and other kind of risks for the state of Minnesota,” he said. “So our conclusion was that it was not worth that risk, given what the cases said and what the constitution said.”

Some Republican lawmakers are accusing Simon of trying to subvert the Legislature, saying that without the witness requirement there's a greater chance of voter fraud.

Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said Simon’s action undermines a bipartisan elections bill passed last month. That bill protected election integrity, while allowing for both absentee and in-person voting, Nash said, adding that Simon’s action is a slap in the face of legislators

“The secretary did it after himself saying in committee that the bill that we had wasn’t necessarily everything that he wanted but it was what the Legislature wanted, and that he would make it work,” he said.

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, also criticized Simon. Kiffmeyer is a former secretary of state who said she felt betrayed by Simon’s maneuvering in the legal system with what she called two liberal groups.

“It is a hotly contested election,” Kiffmeyer said. “And during this time, it is even more important for the chief election official Secretary of State Steve Simon to uphold his office in the best way of being that neutral third party that everyone can trust. That is sadly not the case.”

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