Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon’s office said Tuesday that the state will waive the witness requirement for absentee ballots in the August primaries despite a federal judge’s misgivings about a consent decree easing the rules for mail-in voting.
Simon’s office said he will follow a state court decision from a week ago that approved an agreement removing the witness requirement, a move that was sought in a lawsuit filed by the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans Educational Fund.
Early voting in the August primary begins Friday.
But in a separate case brought by the League of Women Voters of Minnesota, a federal judge said Tuesday that a similar agreement went “well beyond” the concerns raised by a voter who said her health could be jeopardized by having to meet the witness requirement to vote during the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. District Judge Eric Tostrud called for a more narrowly tailored agreement to remedy specific harms cited by the league’s lawsuit.
Despite Tostrud’s opinion, Simon, a leading DFL proponent of mail-in voting, said his office will continue to waive the witness requirement in accordance with a decision signed last week by Ramsey County District Judge Sara Grewing.
“Today’s U.S. District Court ruling does not affect last week’s state court ruling that the consent decree is fair, adequate, reasonable, and in the public interest. We are bound by the ruling of the state district court and will comply with the order,” Risikat Adesaogun, the spokeswoman for Simon’s office, said in a statement.
The Minnesota Republican Party and several GOP lawmakers have opposed the change.
The agreements stem from lawsuits filed by the two citizens groups contesting the requirement that people voting by mail need other registered voters to sign as witnesses. The organizations argued the rule was burdensome and endangered public health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Simon’s office already started implementing the change to allow ballots without a witness signature, said Jonathan Diaz, the attorney for the League of Women Voters.
“This decision has no impact on Minnesota voters right now. It doesn’t change anything for them,” Diaz said.
Tostrud did not disagree with the league’s argument that some voters’ health could be jeopardized by the witness requirement during the pandemic. However, he said the consent decree the two parties reached — eliminating the need for witnesses for every Minnesotan who votes absentee — goes too far.
He said the sides haven’t established the need for “wholesale nonenforcement” of the requirement. He left unclear what would happen to the league’s case, saying, “There are many possibilities.”
The League of Women Voters and other groups are also pushing for the witness requirement to be lifted in the November election, but that has not yet been decided.