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Olmsted County set to defend plan for Nov. 3 absentee ballot reviews

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ROCHESTER, Minn. — Olmsted County and three other jurisdictions are expected to defend how they handle absentee ballots on Aug. 26 — 10 weeks before the general election.

“I see this as an issue with some urgency,” said Judge Thomas Gilligan Jr. of the Second Judicial District.

Gilligan decided to jointly hear four cases filed by the Minnesota Voters Alliance and the Republican Party of Minnesota.

The cases call into question practices by Olmsted County, Ramsey County, Duluth and Minneapolis when it comes to creating absentee ballot review boards to oversee how questioned ballots are accepted or rejected.

“Everyone is voting absentee, so this is the ballot board that matters,” said Erick Kaardal, the attorney representing the Minnesota Voters Alliance.

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The alliance claims Olmsted County uses county employees to examine absentee ballot envelopes, arguing state law requires the ballot board to include election judges from lists submitted by the major political parties.

In an initial response to the Olmsted County complaint, Jennifer Plante, a senior assistant county attorney, argued that many of the organization’s assumptions are incorrect.

On Friday, Aug. 7, she told Gilligan the time constraints of the case are problematic, noting the county received the initial documents late July 30, after other jurisdictions were notified of the complaints. As a result, she only had days to research the issue and reply as county staff was preparing for a primary election.

“We were the last to come to the party, as it were,” she said of receiving the court filing, which was also submitted on behalf of state Rep. Duane Quam. R-Byron.

The other county and city attorneys argued that the urgency of the case was created by the groups Kaardal was representing.

“The rush of this lawsuit is entirely of the petitioner’s making,” Duluth Assistant City Attorney Elizabeth Sellers said as she and her counterparts argued that the decision was too important to be rushed amid an ongoing primary election.

Gilligan recognized the limits created by the timing of the complaint and said Kaardal wouldn’t have a chance to file added documents once the cities and counties reply to his initial arguments, which were expected to be filed Friday.

“We are going to sort things out in the arguments on the 26th,” the judge said, giving the city and county attorneys until Aug. 24 to file answers to Kaardal’s complaints.

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Gilligan said he plans to set aside the afternoon of Aug. 26 to hear arguments but told attorneys he will likely focus on the most pressing matters.

“I want to deal with the things I have to deal with now because of the time sensitivity,” he said, adding that some concerns could be dealt with at a later date or may be ready for negotiations after the initial decisions are made.

If the judge upholds the complaint, it could require Olmsted County and the other jurisdictions to scramble to create new citizen-led absentee ballot review boards and have them ready for the general election.

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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