Counting ballots

Restoring faith in Minnesota’s elections.

The Upper Midwest Law Center (UMLC) is challenging a rule that restricts the ability of election judges to reject absentee ballots.

Representing the Minnesota Voters Alliance (MVA) and three Ramsey County ballot board members, UMLC has petitioned to overturn an administrative rule created by the Minnesota secretary of state. The rule limits the reasons a ballot can be rejected during name, signature, and ID verification.

According to the UMLC, this rule conflicts directly with existing Minnesota statute and concerns every Minnesota voter. “This is truly a non-partisan issue of election integrity,” says UMLC Senior Trial Counsel James Dickey.

The case will determine how the 2022 midterm elections are conducted. As of now, the secretary of state’s rule will remain in effect. But if the Court of Appeals sides with UMLC, the elections will operate only under state statute.

The Minnesota statute establishes the conditions that must be met for election judges to accept an absentee ballot. Two or more ballot board members — of different major political parties — must agree that 1) the voter’s name and address match those provided on the absentee ballot application, 2) the voter signed the certification envelope, and 3) the ID number on the envelope matches the number provided on the application.

If the ID numbers don’t match, ballot board members must compare the applicant’s signatures on the ballot envelope and their application.

But the secretary of state’s rule allows judges to reject a ballot only if the name and address are “clearly” different than the name of the voter as printed on the envelope.

Other conditions that may not be used to reject a ballot include the use or lack of nicknames, abbreviations, or initials and the use of a signature mark.

According to the UMLC, it’s an issue of conflicting requirements. “You have a situation where the rule conflicts with the statute, which makes it impossible to comply with both,” Dickey says.

When the rule was established in 2010, just 23,237 absentee ballots were cast. In 2020 that number jumped to 1.9 million ballots, and people started paying attention to the absentee ballot verification rules.

The three citizen petitioners — Ramsey County residents Tony Ward, Thomas Polachek, and Edward Bailen — all served as election judges in 2020 and 2021. They plan to serve again in 2022. But they say the conflicting instructions make it impossible to do their job.

“The secretary of state’s rule takes away the judges’ ability to use their training, wisdom, and judgment and replaces it with the secretary of state’s judgment, which says that you can’t reject a ballot except in the rarest of circumstances,” says Dickey.

Even if the rule didn’t conflict with state statute, UMLC argues, the secretary of state has no authority to restrict the reasons for rejecting a ballot.

Absentee ballots are submitted inside a security envelope held within a larger envelope. The envelope shows no information regarding the voter’s selection or political party, so ballot board members have no personal stake in rejecting or accepting a ballot.

UMLC and MVA agree: It’s a matter of restoring faith in elections.

“It is totally non-partisan,” says Dickey. “It is purely about making sure that ballot board members are not forced to accept ballots which appear to be potentially fraudulent.”