A group of older Minnesota voters is suing the secretary of state over concerns that the state's absentee voting rules could put their vote — and their health — at risk this year.

Part of a broader movement to change absentee rules across at least five states, the Minnesota challenge argues that many older voters who are self-quarantining to avoid contracting the COVID-19 virus won't be able to get the required witness signatures on their mail-in ballots.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Ramsey County District Court by the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans Educational Fund, looks to stop the state from enforcing that requirement and also to adopt a postmark deadline on mail-in ballots.

State law requires absentee ballots to be hand-delivered to county elections offices by 3 p.m. on Election Day or received by mail by 8 p.m. in order to be counted. Anticipating a dramatic uptick in mail voting because of an expected spike this fall in COVID-19 cases, the plaintiffs worry a cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service may not be able to deliver such ballots in time.

Secretary of State Steve Simon's office declined to comment on the litigation.

The lawsuit follows similar legal actions this year via state chapters of the Alliance for Retired Americans in Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. Minnesota plaintiffs include senior voters with pre-existing health problems like Teresa Maples, a 66-year-old voter in Red Wing.

"There is no question that I will be unable to vote in person because I am strictly following the social distancing and self-isolation guidelines," Maples said in a statement Wednesday. "Because I live alone and cannot safely obtain a witness signature, my vote may never be counted."

The legal challenge comes a day after Gov. Tim Walz signed into law a $17 million elections assistance package aimed at helping state and local election workers carry out the Aug. 11 primary and Nov. 3 general elections amid the coronavirus pandemic. The bill included extra money for personal protective and sanitizing equipment and gave officials more time to process absentee ballots.

Missing from the bill was a measure to adopt universal mail-in voting for the two elections, a proposal championed by Democratic lawmakers and Simon. Walz this week voiced support for universal mail-in voting — which would have allowed Simon's office to mail all registered voters ballots to complete — and a press secretary said the governor was "considering next steps in how to ensure Minnesotans are safely able to exercise their right to vote."

Simon's office has meanwhile shifted to urging as many voters as possible to request absentee ballots before the elections. On Wednesday, it opened an online absentee ballot request tool for registered voters to make such requests.

"We need to treat the upcoming statewide elections as a public health issue," Simon said in a statement announcing the online request portal on Wednesday. "To slow the spread of COVID-19 we need to reduce large gatherings, including at polling places. I'm challenging all eligible Minnesota voters to cast their vote from the safety of their home. In the face of this pandemic, it is the right thing to do to protect Minnesotans who are most at risk — and the people who care for them. Fortunately, it's very easy to do."

But Wednesday's lawsuit in Ramsey County assailed as "unduly burdensome" Minnesota's requirement that absentee voters get another voter or notary signature to complete their ballot.

The plaintiffs also want Simon to adopt a postmark deadline for this year's absentee ballots — similar to what Wisconsin did before its April elections.

About a quarter of all Minnesota voters who participated in the 2018 midterm election did so by mail, but that number is expected to soar this year.

Half of the 7,519 absentee ballots discarded by the state in 2018 were tossed because they arrived after the deadline. Wednesday's lawsuit alleges that the requirement would "disenfranchise tens of thousands more voters this year than in years past."

To vote absentee, Minnesota voters must first complete an absentee ballot application, receive the ballot in the mail and get a signature from another registered voter, notary or person otherwise authorized to administer oaths. The voter must then mail the ballot with enough time for it to meet the 8 p.m. Election Day receipt deadline.

"The steps … which are required to successfully vote absentee, are not insubstantial, often requiring voters to expend significant time, effort, and sometimes money to complete," wrote Sybil Dunlop, an attorney for the plaintiffs, in the civil complaint filed Wednesday. "A misstep at any point — including by elections officials or the USPS, not just the voter — often results in complete disenfranchisement."

In a statement, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's National Redistricting Foundation expressed support for the lawsuit, which it is also financially and operationally backing.

"The botched and gerrymandered primary election right next door in Wisconsin showed us exactly what happens when a state is unprepared for a substantial increase in voting by mail," Holder said. "Minnesota must act now to ensure that its voters are not severely and unjustifiably burdened by unnecessary obstacles to casting a ballot at home."

Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755

Twitter: @smontemayor