A Minnesota judge Monday approved changes easing Minnesota absentee ballot rules during the coronavirus pandemic for the November general election.

An agreement approved by Ramsey County District Judge Sara Grewing allows voters to submit their mail-in or absentee ballots in the Nov. 3 general election without witness signatures. Election officials also will count ballots that arrive within seven days of the election, as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3.

The changes are the result of an agreement between DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon and citizen groups that filed a lawsuit against the state, including the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans Educational Fund. Plaintiffs celebrated the decision as a win for voters worried about the health risks of voting in person during a pandemic.

"All voters should be able to vote by mail and know that their ballot will be counted," said Richard Fiesta, executive director of the national Alliance for Retired Americans. "This is especially critical for seniors, who are the most at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic, and need to be able to vote by mail to protect their health."

Monday's development follows a June decision approving similar election rules for the Aug. 11 primary. Republican legislators have criticized both the changes and the process of reaching them.

Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, characterized the new deal as another "heavy handed" end-run around an elections bill that lawmakers approved earlier this year.

"Certainly I understand people have concerns with COVID, I do," he said. "I do believe that people want to be able to vote safely. But they have the ability to do that today with no-excuse absentee."

Nash, a top-ranking House Republican on election issues, said he wouldn't rule out a legal challenge seeking to block the changes.

Minnesota has seen a surge of interest in absentee voting in light of COVID-19, with requests for primary ballots up tenfold from the same period in 2016.

Some officials have expressed concerns that an influx in mail ballots could overwhelm the postal system, resulting in ballots landing with election officials too late to count. The new agreement allows for more time for ballots to arrive in November, which could potentially delay final results for some races.

Ballots for the Aug. 11 primary must be postmarked for that day and arrive within two days of the election to count.