Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon is sending letters to all registered voters in the state who have not requested absentee ballots, encouraging them to vote from home.

The move follows a lawsuit by the NAACP and ACLU pressing for expanded voting access during the COVID-19 pandemic. They called the agreement to mail voters absentee ballot applications a legal victory, saying it will help ensure people can vote safely.

The letters have prompted concerns from some Republican legislators who sought to limit mail-in voting through an election funding bill the Legislature passed last spring.

Voting from home is a public service during the pandemic, Simon said in a statement about the mailers. This spring he championed universal mail-in balloting, which would have enabled his office to send all registered voters ballots. Facing GOP opposition, Simon then pivoted to trying to make sure as many people as possible request absentee ballots.

"Every person who votes from home is making the polling place a little bit safer for voters who need or prefer to vote in person. This mailing is all about making sure Minnesota voters know that voting from home is easy, safe, and secure," he said.

Early voting in Minnesota kicked off Friday and so far more than 860,000 of the state's nearly 3.5 million registered voters have asked for absentee ballots, according to Simon's office.

Those who have not already asked for mail-in ballots will receive request forms they can mail back — or make requests online.

Ten states have sent similar mailers to voters.

The Minnesota mailers cost $1.1 million, according to a spokeswoman for Simon's office. The office said it is covering the cost with federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money aimed at helping states handle elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new state law allows for the federal money to be used for "facilitation, support, and preparation for increased absentee voting, including voter education materials, printing, and postage."

But Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, the GOP lead on the House Elections Subcommittee, said when lawmakers were negotiating plans for the money, a massive mailing to encourage mail-in voting was not brought up. He said he anticipated more of the federal money would go to municipalities to help with expenses like sanitization, plexiglass and personal protective equipment at polls.

"Never once did we mention, 'Send a letter to everybody,' " Nash said, calling it an example of "a casual relationship that Secretary Simon has with his word."

The Legislature approved money for mitigating COVID-19 at the polls as well as educating people on other ways to vote, said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, chairwoman of the Senate committee that handles elections. However, she said she is disappointed Simon did not mention in his letter that people can vote in person at their election office.

"Voters wanting to have a more secure process than mail can go ahead and vote beginning today at their county election office. There's no waiting for a ballot in the mail or checking online to see if it's been counted," she said.

Simon's efforts come as President Donald Trump has continued to try to limit mail-in voting. He has claimed, without evidence, that it is ripe for fraud. Other Republicans have not shared the president's opposition to voting by mail, with some officials across the country expressing concerns that his comments could hurt Republicans' chances.

A mailer has been landing in Minnesotans' mailboxes from the Republican Party of Minnesota with an image of Trump on it. It reads: "President Trump wants you to return this form!" and contains an absentee ballot request form.

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044