Supreme Court orders changes to absentee ballots

Dan Haugen

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled late Thursday afternoon that county election officials must provide revised, supplemental U.S. Senate absentee ballots to anyone who requests one.

The order comes two days after DFL Party leaders filed a petition with the court asking that it bar the Secretary of State’s office from sending out or receiving any more absentee ballots bearing the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s name.

“(Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer) has utterly failed to instruct voters on what to do,” DFL spokesperson Bill Amberg said of the party’s petition.

County election officials across the state have already mailed out thousands of absentee ballots, all of which list Wellstone as the DFL party’s U.S. Senate candidate.

Absentee votes cast for Wellstone will be tallied, but they will not be counted toward former Vice President Walter Mondale’s total. Mondale will replace Wellstone as the DFL candidate on special ballots used in Election Day voting.

The Supreme Court judges listened to arguments by DFL and Republican lawyers Thursday morning.

DFL attorney Alan Weinblatt argued that the state should mandate counties to get revised ballots to every registered absentee voter, or at very least, make the new ballots available to all who request them.

Republican attorney Tony Trimble said mass mailings of updated ballots could lead to more confusion among absentee voters and that the state would be crossing a line by presuming people want to change their votes.

But both lawyers agreed counties should be allowed to issue new absentee ballots to voters who request them. Several counties, including Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka and Washington, were already doing just that. The Supreme Court’s order mandates all other counties follow suit.

“It’s a compromise, and essentially, no one should be complaining,” said University professor Guy Charles, who teaches election law this semester in Mondale Hall. “The court has tried to assure that voters have the most ability possible to register their political preferences.”

The court likely will issue its full opinion in the next week, Charles said, but the order essentially invalidates a section of Minnesota statute that prohibits counties from mailing supplemental ballots to voters who already received their absentee ballots.

Attorney General Mike Hatch praised the counsel on both sides for focusing on law and not rhetoric.

“We are not Florida. People are working together,” he said.

Prior to the court order, as Hatch explained to Gov. Jesse Ventura in a letter the day after Wellstone’s death, absentee voters who had already sent their ballots had only two guaranteed options for changing their vote.

One option was to show up at their polling place Tuesday to vote, thereby voiding their absentee ballot. Otherwise they could show up in person at their county election office and obtain a replacement ballot there.

In its order, the Supreme Court expanded the latter option. Now, instead of having to show up in person at the county election office, voters may request a replacement ballot “in any manner,” including by telephone.

In return, the absentee voter will receive two ballots. One, labeled “official supplemental ballot,” will list the updated choices for the U.S. Senate race. The other will be identical to the original absentee ballot. Voters are then required to revote for every race, and the new ballot will be counted instead of the old one.

Those who have not yet sent in their absentee ballot can, and always could, simply write in a new candidate.

Secretary of State spokesman Kent Kaiser said the state is on pace to receive approximately 100,000 absentee ballots this election. In the last gubernatorial election year, 93,000 – approximately 4.5 percent of total votes – were cast via absentee ballots. The highest ever absentee total was in 2000 when 163,000 chose that route.

Charles said while there will conceivably be voters who do not receive absentee ballots in time or fail to get them in by Tuesday’s deadline, this still might be the last of the courtroom challenges surrounding the U.S. Senate race.

“This might be it, but you never know,” he said.

Dan Haugen welcomes comments at [email protected]