CLC, LWV Secure Safe Absentee Voting for Minnesota Primary Amid Pandemic

SAINT PAUL, MN – Today, Minnesota has agreed to allow voters to cast absentee ballots in the state’s August 11 primary without a witness present, making it easier for them to participate in the primary while protecting themselves from COVID-19.  

Under an agreement submitted for court approval today, Minnesota’s Secretary of State will ensure absentee ballots will count in the August primary regardless of whether they include a witness signature. The Secretary also agreed to educate the public, including by updating the absentee voting materials, about this temporary change.

U.S. District Judge Eric C. Tostrud has set a hearing for Thursday on the joint request to enter the agreement as an enforceable court order.

This agreement, if approved, will partially resolve a federal lawsuit in which Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and Lathrop GPM are representing the League of Women Voters of Minnesota Education Fund and an individual voter, Vivian Latimer Tanniehill.

The case, LWVMN v. Simon, was filed on May 19, seeking to suspend Minnesota’s witness requirement for absentee voting during the COVID-19 pandemic and permanently loosen restrictions on who can serve as a ballot witness. Minnesota law ordinarily requires absentee voters to obtain the signature of a witness, who must be a registered Minnesota voter, a notary, or another official authorized to give oaths.

“This is a win for Minnesota voters, particularly seniors and people with underlying health conditions who are at higher risk for getting seriously sick from COVID-19,” said Paul Smith, vice president at CLC. “The fact that both parties came to an agreement is an example of how it’s possible for states to protect the right to vote, promote public health, and maintain the integrity of elections at the same time. Constitutional rights cannot be conditioned on an individual’s willingness to subject themselves and their families to a heightened risk of contracting a potentially deadly virus.”

“We are thrilled the state saw the urgent need to suspend the witness requirement during the ongoing global pandemic,” said Michelle Witte, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota. “Today’s agreement is a victory for voters across the state, especially senior voters and voters with underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to complications from COVID-19. Those living out of state temporarily, like college students, are also protected with today’s settlement.” 

“I am very excited about this agreement and believe it is a win-win for everyone,” said Vivian Latimer Tanniehill, a Minnesota voter and plaintiff in the case. “I am thrilled we were able to remove a barrier for seniors and people with underlying health conditions. We no longer must choose between our health and exercising our right to vote.”

Read Ms. Latimer Tanniehill’s story.

Minnesota’s witness requirement puts the state in rare company. Only a small minority of states – 12 in total – require a witness or notary as part of the ordinary process for casting an absentee ballot. Two of the other 11 – Virginia and Rhode Island – have voluntarily waived or modified their witness requirements for 2020 given the extraordinary circumstances around COVID-19.

While today’s agreement will suspend the witness requirement for Minnesota’s August primary, the federal litigation is not over. CLC continues to fight for a court order blocking enforcement of the witness requirement for the November 2020 election and striking down Minnesota’s restrictive rules about who can serve as a ballot witness in future elections.