An Election Win — Without an Election

The Minnesota Supreme Court pulls back the absentee ballot reins.

Last summer, Thinking Minnesota reported on how the Minnesota Voters Alliance (MVA) was challenging a rule from the Minnesota secretary of state governing absentee ballots. The Minnesota Court of Appeals rejected MVA’s challenge, but the Minnesota Supreme Court granted a review of their decision. In May 2023, the Supreme Court ruled partially in favor of MVA and partially in favor of the Minnesota secretary of state.

 The MVA, represented by the Upper Midwest Law Center (UMLC), argued that the secretary of state’s rule directly conflicted with existing Minnesota statute. If true, the secretary of state would be overstepping his authority, and the rule would be struck down.

The rule in question was actually established back in 2010. That year, just 23,237 absentee ballots were cast. But in 2020, that number jumped to 1.9 million ballots, and people — such as the MVA — started paying attention to the absentee ballot verification rules and how the secretary of state was interpreting them.

Minnesota has a straightforward absentee voting process. First, any eligible voter requests an absentee ballot. Once his application is approved, the voter receives in the mail four components: a ballot, a tan ballot envelope, a white signature envelope, and a larger white return envelope. The voter fills out his ballot and places it inside the ballot envelope. The voter then fills out the signature envelope with his name, address, and identification number (his driver’s license number, Minnesota ID card number, or the last four digits of his Social Security number), and signs it. He then places the ballot envelope into the signature envelope and seals it. Finally, he places the completed signature envelope into the mailing envelope and sends it to be reviewed and counted.

Prior to the court’s ruling, the current secretary of state was interpreting key elements of the rule (8210.2450) somewhat loosely. There are six reasons an absentee ballot might be rejected upon arrival, but only two matter in this case. First, if “the voter” did not sign the signature envelope; second, if the voter’s ID number on the signature envelope does not match the ID number on his absentee ballot application (or his voter record). If the identification numbers do not match, the voter has one more chance for acceptance: if the signature on the signature envelope matches the signature on the ballot application.

The Minnesota secretary of state argued that the questions, “Did the voter sign the certification on the envelope?” and “Is there a signature on the envelope?” were the exact same. In other words, any signature, even one showing a different name than on the ballot, met the legislative requirement. The Minnesota Supreme Court ultimately disagreed, ending that interpretation.

The court ruled that the signature on a voter’s certification envelope must belong to the person for whom the ballot is intended — as MVA argued. But at the same time, to avoid nitpicking over small differences in signatures, the only legitimate reason to reject a signature (under this initial part of the analysis) is if the name is “clearly different” than the name printed on the envelope, which “foreclose[es] a comparison of the voter’s signatures,” as Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote in her opinion. In other words, if the signature on the signature envelope fairly represents the name on the envelope — they both say “John Doe,” not “John Doe” and “Mickey Mouse” — the ballot is acceptable, at least so far.

To avoid rejecting a ballot, ballot board members must also be satisfied that the identification numbers on the signature envelope and the original ballot application match. If they don’t match, the election judges on the
ballot board must compare signatures between the two documents. The court confirmed that if the signatures match, the ballot satisfies that requirement. MVA was concerned that the secretary and local officials had been interpreting the rule to allow any signature to work on either document, theoretically using the physical disability accommodation in the law. However, the court assured Minnesotans that “only those with physical writing disabilities can use alternative means of signing applications and envelopes.” And importantly, siding expressly with MVA, the court ruled that if the identification number on a voter’s signature envelope does not match the ID number on his absentee voter application, a signature review must be performed only by a party-balanced election judge — not a regular ballot board member appointed by a potentially partisan county auditor. The court also clarified the acceptable usage of nicknames when evaluating signatures.

What does this mean for the average Minnesota voter? Get out and vote!

“We’re pleased with this decision,” said James Dickey, senior trial counsel for UMLC. “But the days of voting only after 3 p.m. on election day are over. The absentee ballot board doesn’t know who you’re voting for when they decide to accept or reject a ballot, and the Minnesota secretary of state interprets the law to accept every absentee ballot possible. So, there is no reason to ever miss an election again because of bad weather or if work gets in the way. Don’t fear the system, vote any way that works for you, and help your friends and neighbors to make sure their votes get in. And remember, there are people watching, like the Minnesota Voters Alliance and the Upper Midwest Law Center, to make sure your ballot is safe and everything is done correctly.”