Minnesota's secretary of state is "worried" about a "coordinated effort" to undermine voting by mail

"I hope it's not an attempt to scare people into not voting by mail in general," Steve Simon tells Salon

Published August 14, 2020 10:29PM (EDT)

Election workers sort vote-by-mail ballots for the presidential primary (JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)
Election workers sort vote-by-mail ballots for the presidential primary (JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said he is "worried" about a "coordinated effort at the federal level" to scare voters from using mail-in ballots after the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) warned his state that its vote-by-mail deadline might be too tight for the agency's "delivery standards." 

Forty-five more states have reportedly been warned of potential voter disenfranchisement resulting from delays in delivering mail-in ballots.

"The letters have everyone a little unsettled," Simon told Salon in a call. "We don't know what to make of it."

The warnings come amid a flurry of attacks from President Donald Trump against the practice of voting by mail, including a public threat this week to block new funding from the USPS in an apparent effort to sabotage plans to expand the practice ahead of Election Day.

"They need that money in order to have the Post Office work, so it can take all of these millions of ballots," Trump told Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo on Thursday. "If they don't get those two items, that means you can't have universal mail-in voting. Because they're not equipped."

Trump previously said the expansion of voting by mail was "my biggest risk" to winning re-election. At the same time, Trump and first lady Melania Trump have reportedly requested and received mail-in ballots for next week's primary elections in Florida.

In a letter dated July 29, a copy of which Simon's office shared with Salon, USPS general counsel Thomas Marshall said the agency based the warning on its own understanding of Minnesota election law.

"In particular, we wanted to note that, under our reading of Minnesota's election laws, certain deadlines for requesting and casting mail-in ballots are incongruous with the Postal Service's delivery standards," Marshall wrote.

However, a recent state court order already changed the rules for this year's election, allowing Minnesota voters to mail their ballots all the way through Election Day and extending the delivery window for up to seven days thereafter. 

"There was no mention of any of that in this letter," Simon said. "It was like they didn't know about the court order."

With a Democratic governor now in office, Minnesota — which Trump's Democrat rival Hillary Clinton won by a razor-thin margin of 44,593 votes in 2016 — remains a key swing state.

Dozens of states received similar letters postmarked around the same time, The Washington Post reported Thursday. However, the content was not identical, with some states receiving more narrow warnings than others. In addition to Minnesota, Salon obtained copies of letters sent to the secretaries of state of Colorado, Florida, Missouri, North Carolina and Texas.

Wisconsin's elections system is different. "The secretary of state hasn't had anything to do with elections since the early 1970s," Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) administrator Meagan Wolfe, told Salon in an email.

Wolfe said that her agency, which runs elections in the state, had not received a warning letter from the USPS. "Maybe they sent it to the secretary of state by mistake," she said. "Maybe it's still on its way." The secretary of state did not reply to Salon's requests for comment.

However, Wolfe confirmed that the USPS Office of Inspector General had issued a report to the WEC on July 7 regarding "mail problems" during the state's spring elections in April. Wolfe said the report included a section on deadline incompatibilities, though she pointed out that any changes to voting deadlines would require an act of the legislature or court order.

In the spring, Wisconsin's expansion of mail-in voting contributed to a "shocking margin of victory" when a liberal judge trounced a conservative incumbent for a seat on the state's Supreme Court in what was expected to be a close race.

"We have been aware for several years that Wisconsin's statutory absentee ballot request deadline of the Thursday before an election does not fit well with USPS' seven-day delivery advice," Wolfe added. "For that reason, we have consistently advised voters to make their absentee ballot requests as early as possible."

Wolfe said her office will mail voting information packets, including absentee request forms and postage-paid return envelopes, to approximately 2.6 million registered voters in early September who have not already requested an absentee ballot for November.

A spokesperson for Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft noted in an email what appears to be another oversight on behalf of USPS, which is similar to the one in Minnesota.

"A bill pushed by Sec. Ashcroft (SB 592) and signed into law by Gov. Parson in 2018 actually moved the deadline to submit an application for an absentee ballot from the Wednesday prior to the election to the second Wednesday prior to the election," the spokesperson said.

That new deadline "created a larger window for voters to return their ballots," Ashcroft said in a statement to Salon, in which he called the USPS warning a "non-issue."

"Secondly, we added an email option, allowing a voter to request an absentee ballot by email," he continued.

"I fully believe in the safety of in-person voting and have our local election authorities to thank for that," Ashcroft added. "Any chance I get, if voters wish to vote absentee or by mail, I encourage them to apply early and to send in their ballot as soon as possible."

The USPS issued a more narrow warning to Colorado, which had already expanded mail-in voting statewide.

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold said in a statement provided to Salon that while she believes her state is "well situated to handle both the delivery and return of mail ballots," she is "concerned about service disruptions and other attacks on the U.S. Postal Service from President Trump and members of his administration."

"I am in confident that Coloradans will have their voices heard in November's election," Griswold said, pointing out that mail-in ballots are sent out three weeks ahead of Election Day. Her department maintains over 300 drop boxes across the state.

The Florida Department of State, which received one of the broader warnings, told Salon in a statement that it values its relationship with the Postal Service, as well as that "[t]he majority of Supervisors of Elections are not reporting any issues."

"[We] understand that an increased amount of voters are opting for vote-by-mail ballots this election cycle," the statement said, adding that Florida has installed a number of drop boxes statewide like Colorado. "We are monitoring very closely the delivery of vote-by-mail ballots in Florida. The majority of Supervisors of Elections are not reporting any issues."

While it appears that nearly every state received a warning of some kind weeks ago, Sec. Simon told Salon that he was not sure why the news had not broken until Thursday, when Pennsylvania cited its letter in a court filing to extend its three-day mail-in deadline. He said he discussed receiving the letter in passing with one other state secretary. While both found it odd, his office did not think it was worth informing the public.

"I honestly don't know why they sent them. We never received one in the past,"  Simon, whose efforts to meet with Postmaster General and Trump megadonor Louis DeJoy have not met with success, said. (DeJoy had a "congratulatory meeting" with President Donald Trump at the White House last week.)

"But I want to be clear: I hope it's not an attempt to scare people into not voting by mail in general," Simon said. "I'm worried that I see a coordinated effort at the federal level. I sure hope this isn't part of it."

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

MORE FROM Roger Sollenberger

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Donald Trump Elections Elections 2020 Louis Dejoy Minnesota Politics Reporting Steve Simon Usps Voting By Mail