Minnesota’s Witness Requirements to Vote Absentee Are Impossible to Meet During COVID-19 Pandemic

A senior man sitting in a chair by the window

At the urging of health experts and its own governmental leaders, millions of Minnesotans – especially senior citizens and those with underlying health conditions – are avoiding contact with people outside their households to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Under the current state law, absentee voting will require voters to violate this social distancing protocol unless they happen to live with a qualified witness under Minnesota’s narrow definition.

Campaign Legal Center (CLC) has sued Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon to seek the suspension of Minnesota’s witness requirement for absentee voting during the COVID-19 pandemic for the 2020 elections and a permanent easing of restrictions on who can serve as a ballot witness.

CLC is representing the League of Women Voters Minnesota Education Fund (LWVMN) and an individual client, Vivian Latimer Tanniehill, who fears contracting and spreading the virus if she is forced to seek a witness to exercise her right to vote.

It is critical to American democracy and to protect public health that all voters have the choice to vote absentee for the November 2020 election.

Minnesota’s election system threatens the safety of Minnesota voters during the COVID-19 pandemic because absentee voters must fill out their ballot in the physical presence of a witness that needs to sign a certificate. Only a registered Minnesota voter, a notary, or another person authorized to administer oaths may play this role.

This requirement puts Minnesota 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 of voting during a global pandemic. Only in Minnesota does it matter whether the witness is an in-state registered voter. 

Corey handles media relations for the CLC voting rights and redistricting teams and creates online content. Follow @cgfromdc on Twitter