A group of voters backed by Republican legislators sued Gov. Tim Walz and other state and local officials Tuesday in federal court, aiming to block a face mask requirement at polling places.
Members of the Minnesota Voters Alliance and GOP lawmakers contend Walz's mask mandate, intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, conflicts with a longstanding state law making it a misdemeanor for someone to conceal their identity with a mask. The 1963 law grants exceptions, including masks that are part of medical treatment.
"That's a conflict and I don't know what to do on primary day," said Kim Crockett, one of the Minnesotans challenging the mask requirement.
She and other members of the Voters Alliance are seeking a temporary restraining order to block the rule that people must wear masks when they vote in-person during next Tuesday's primary election.
The statewide indoor mask mandate that Walz issued two weeks ago was one of the latest emergency orders from the DFL governor in response to the pandemic. Crockett said Tuesday she wants such decisions to be made through a back-and-forth between legislators, "not an edict by our governor."
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison issued a statement Tuesday standing behind "the legality and constitutionality of this executive order." His office noted that the suit is the 11th legal challenge so far against Walz or the state over COVID-19 restrictions.
Meanwhile, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon told the Star Tribune last week that voters won't be required to wear masks. Election workers will ask people to wear masks and offer them for free. Curbside voting could be an alternative for voters who refuse. Counties and cities can determine whether to cite people who violate the mask rule, Simon said. "No one should stand in their way of voting. It's a constitutional right," he said. "You can't tie a constitutional right to the wearing of a mask."
Voters Alliance attorney Erick Kaardal said Simon's comments are an "attempt to distract the public" from a policy he issued to county auditors and elections officials. If people insist on voting at indoor polling places without a mask and don't have a health reason preventing them from covering their faces, Simon directed officials to allow them to vote but to record their names and let them know they will be reported to authorities.
The suit is the latest GOP challenge to Walz's use of emergency powers in the pandemic. Democrats who control the state House have blocked Republican efforts to end the powers. DFL leaders say it's important for Walz — like other governors across the nation — to be able to act quickly in response to the pandemic.
Emergency executive orders historically supersede regular state statutes, said Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann. He noted that the face-covering order specifically mentions the COVID-19 emergency and that it would not be a violation of the 1963 statute to comply.
Kaardal said Walz is trying to have it "both ways" with the mask laws.
"With the specter of threatened prosecution hanging over those who show up barefaced at polls on primary Election Day, upstanding voters are faced only with the option of breaking another, well-established state law," Kaardal said.
The lawsuit was filed as Walz prepared for an event with the Central Minnesota Council on Aging in Sartell to promote an effort to give out nearly 400,000 cloth masks to people who have a hard time getting them.
Business owners and the same group of Republicans who support the Minnesota Voters Alliance case filed an earlier suit in Ramsey County to prevent more executive orders. A ruling by Judge Thomas Gilligan is pending in that case.
The Minnesota Voters Alliance has a history of trying to change elections practices through the courts. The group won a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case overturning a state law preventing people from wearing political items or clothes to the polls. The group also sued Simon to force the public release of more state voter data, but the state Supreme Court upheld the privacy restrictions.
Staff writer Kim Hyatt contributed to this report.
Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044