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Court: Ballot rule conflicts with statute

Signature review is sole purview of election judges

Laura Brown//May 31, 2023

Dick Johnson matches signatures on a signature envelope, left, and an absentee ballot application, right, in 2004

Ramsey County Election Judge Dick Johnson matches signatures on a signature envelope, left, and an absentee ballot application, right, at the Ramsey County Elections Office on Friday, Oct. 29, 2004, in St. Paul. (AP file photo)

Court: Ballot rule conflicts with statute

Signature review is sole purview of election judges

Laura Brown//May 31, 2023

The Minnesota Voters Alliance is touting a partial victory in a ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

In Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State, filed May 24, 2023, the court found that, while much of a challenged administrative rule governing the acceptance of absentee ballots was consistent with a statute, another part was not.

Following the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the Minnesota Voters Alliance declared that it did not accept the results reported by the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office. Although it was careful to say that it did not allege fraud or irregularities, the Alliance did raise questions about absentee voting and election fairness. The Alliance took legal action to challenge the processing of absentee ballots.

The Upper Midwest Law Center filed the lawsuit on the Alliance’s behalf against the Secretary of State in January of 2022 in the Minnesota Court of Appeals. There, the court fully upheld the rule. It determined that the rule and statute did not conflict because ballot board members could comply with both.

Allan Cook Barr, assistant attorney general, represented the Secretary of State. Barr argued that the Alliance’s motives were to require a signature match system—which is what Minnesota once had before the rules were amended following an eight-month dispute over the results of the 2008 U.S. Senate election—instead of an identification number match system.

“A substantial issue leading to that eight-month duration was absentee ballots—specifically, the acceptance or rejection of absentee ballots due to signature comparisons,” Barr explained.

Eligible Minnesotans can request to vote by absentee ballot. The voter will receive the ballot along with a signature envelope and mailing envelope. To return the ballot, the voter must place the completed ballot into the completed signature envelope which then goes into the mailing envelope. Voters must print their name, address, and identification number on the signature envelope.

Minnesota Rule 8210.2450 was promulgated by the Secretary of State to provide guidance for the ballot board’s examination of signature envelopes. It requires ballot board members to first determine whether the identification number provided by the voter on the certificate is identical to the number provided by the voter on the absentee ballot application or on the voter’s record in the statewide voter registration. If the numbers are not identical, then the ballot board members must compare the signatures on the absentee ballot application and the signature envelope to determine authenticity.

The Alliance contested a couple of subparts of the rule. The subpart of the rule that the justices agreed made the rule invalid was subpart 3. The statute permitted only election judges to perform a signature review when the identification numbers mismatched. However, the rule allowed any ballot board member to conduct the review, regardless of whether they were an election judge.

The Minnesota Supreme Court disagreed with the Minnesota Court of Appeals on this point. While it agreed with the lower court that a ballot board could comply with both statute and rule by having ballot board members who were election judges perform the signature comparison, it found that the plain language of rule and statute raised a conflict. “Because the rule changes the explicit terms of the statute by assigning the task of signature review to someone other than election judges, the rule conflicts with the statute to the extent that the rule authorizes non-election judge members of a ballot board to review signatures,” the court wrote.

Additionally, the Alliance argued that the rule conflicted with the statute because the rule limited the discretion of ballot board members when reviewing signature envelopes. Specifically, the Alliance alleged that the ballot board’s ability was limited when it was able to reject an envelope only when the name signed on the envelope was clearly different from the name printed on the envelope.

Ultimately, the court agreed with the Secretary of State that there was no conflict between statute and rule on this ground. However, it disagreed with the Secretary of State’s interpretation of the meaning of “the voter signed” in the statute. While the court agreed that people with a physical disability were able to use alternative means to sign applications and envelopes, it maintained that the statute did not foreclose including an identity requirement.

“The Upper Midwest Law Center brought this lawsuit to ensure that election judges can do their statutory duty, including a real signature match where there’s a mismatch of identification numbers on applications and envelopes,” stated James Dickey, senior counsel for the Upper Midwest Law Center. “We aim to make Minnesotans more confident in our elections, and we’re glad today’s ruling does just that.”

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