Voters Alliance Sues Minneapolis Over State Law to Protect Absentee Ballots

With some 561,000 absentee ballots tallied in 2018, there’s no flattening of the curve when it comes to the number of Minnesotans expected to vote absentee this fall.  By all accounts, the number of residents likely to make their choice via absentee ballot will increase significantly again, due to concerns over voting in person because of COVID-19.

So it will be more critical than ever to have the proper procedures in place to oversee the security and integrity of hundreds of thousands or more absentee ballots in November. Nowhere more so than in Minneapolis, the biggest city in the state.

Yet a newly filed lawsuit by the Minnesota Voters Alliance (MVA) alleges Minneapolis flagrantly violates a state law designed to make sure absentee ballots are overseen by election judges from both parties to assure transparency. The MVA news release puts it bluntly.

For years, Minneapolis has used city clerk staff to do the critical function of examining absentee ballot envelopes and deciding which ones are to be rejected and which are accepted.

The law, however, requires the ballot board to be comprised of election judges from lists submitted by the major political parties. The city simply ignores the law, uses insiders to accept and reject ballots, and avoids any outside scrutiny over its handling of mailed-in ballots.

The state law was put on the books following the controversial recount in the  Coleman-Franken 2008 Senate race.

Shortly after the highly contested recount in 2010 between Al Franken and Norm Coleman, a race in which 300,000 absentee ballots were cast and 12,000 were rejected, the legislature passed a law to ensure impartiality. It required that election judges reviewing each absentee ballot envelope must be of different major political parties (party balance).

The law was passed by an almost unanimous vote of 131-2 in the House, and 63-0 in the Senate, and signed by then-Governor Tim Pawlenty.

In 2013, the legislature expressly eliminated the provision in that law which had allowed city or county staff to serve on the absentee ballot board along with election judges.

The idea is to have a representative group of election judges making the call together on questionable ballots that inevitably come before them. Anyone who remembers the confusion and partisanship over absentee ballots that ultimately decided the outcome of the Coleman-Franken race understands why the state legislature reformed the process.

The legislature understood that when an individual, however qualified they may be to perform election duties, becomes an employee of a city or county, earning an income from that city or county, the employee’s impartiality is compromised due to the authority the city has over the individual as the individual’s employer.

Using a balanced number of election judges that are affiliated with different political parties ensures that any one-sided biases in rejecting ballots will be reduced. Further, if there is mishandling of ballot envelopes by one party, election judges from another major political party will be aware of it and can expose the irregularities they have seen up close.

Moreover,  the voters rights group claims Minneapolis is far from alone when it comes to apparently ignoring this key provision in election law.

Minneapolis is not alone in its abuse of the law. The policy of Secretary of State Steve Simon has enabled jurisdictions throughout the state to do much the same as Minneapolis. As the state’s chief election official, he bears major responsibility for this systemic failure to protect mailed-in ballots from potential mistreatment.”

The outcome of the case could have significant implications for the November 2020 election not only in Minneapolis but statewide.