Supreme Court Rejects Voting Delay in Minnesota House Race

Lower court rules state law requiring postponement overruled by federal law
October 28, 2020 Updated: October 28, 2020

The Supreme Court turned away a Minnesota Republican candidate’s emergency application to postpone voting in his congressional contest to February 2021, after he argued that state law required the postponement because a major-party candidate died weeks before Election Day.

The unusual state law, Minnesota Statute 204B.13, that requires the election to be delayed was enacted after U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Democrat, died in a 2002 plane crash 11 days before a scheduled election. Democrats rushed to find a replacement and picked former Vice President Walter Mondale to run in Wellstone’s place. Mondale was defeated by Republican Norm Coleman.

In the case before the high court, Legal Marijuana Now Party candidate Adam Weeks, 38, of Red Wing, who was running in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District, died unexpectedly Sept. 21. An autopsy determined Weeks died of ethanol and fentanyl toxicity.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch refused the request Oct. 27 without explaining why, as justices often do when disposing of emergency motions.

This means that barring further judicial action, the Nov. 3 election between Republican Tyler Kistner and incumbent Rep. Angie Craig, a Democrat, in the district will go forward. Early voting in Minnesota has been underway since Sept. 18.

Political pundits say the Democrat will likely benefit from high turnout on Nov. 3 and the Republican might have had a better chance of winning in a special election with lower turnout.

“It’s unfortunate that Angie Craig is continuing to silence and disenfranchise thousands of her own constituents,” Kistner told the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune.

Craig said Kistner has taken his case to three different courts and lost each time.

“The real win today is for the voters of Minnesota’s Second Congressional District—who will have their voices heard as part of the November general election and have continuous representation in Congress,” Craig said in a statement.

In the 2018 election, Craig received 52.7 percent of the vote in the St. Paul-area district, defeating incumbent U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, a Republican who received 47.1 percent of the vote. Lewis is running in the Nov. 3 election against U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat who was appointed in January 2018 to fill the unexpired term of then-Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat who resigned after being accused of sexual harassment.

The confusion began on Sept. 24 when Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat, said in a statement on his website that state law required the election to be rescheduled because the decedent Weeks was running on behalf of a major, officially recognized political party in the state.

“The law is clear on what happens next,” Simon said. “If a major party nominee dies within 79 days of Election Day; a special election will be held for that office on the second Tuesday of February (Feb. 9, 2021).”

Simon encouraged voters in the district to continue voting, but counseled that votes in that congressional race wouldn’t be counted. The ballot also covers other federal races such as for president and U.S. senator, as well as for state and local offices.

After the announcement “was widely covered in the media,” Kistner’s campaign “cancelled events and advertising and began to plan for a February 2021 contest,” Kistner argued in court documents.

Even worse, “some voters who cast ballots did not vote for a candidate in the Second Congressional District race.”

Meanwhile, Craig challenged Simon’s determination, and U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright, who was appointed in 2016 by then-President Barack Obama, sided with her, ordering that the Nov. 3 election go forward despite Minnesota Statute 204B.13, which the court found was preempted by federal law.

In her ruling, Wright invoked the so-called Purcell Principle, a judicial doctrine that arose out of the Supreme Court’s 2006 ruling in Purcell v. Gonzalez. The doctrine holds that “courts should not change election rules during the period of time just prior to an election because doing so could confuse voters and create problems for officials administering the election,” according to a SCOTUSblog explainer.

On Oct. 9, Simon reversed his previous advice to voters in the district, informing voters that their votes in the congressional race would be counted.

Kistner argued that Wright, who said she was restoring the status quo by reinstating the Nov. 3 election, misapplied the doctrine. Because state law mandated the election date be postponed, restoring the status quo properly would consist of ordering that the election proceed in February 2021, he claimed in a brief filed with the Supreme Court.

“Mr. Kistner, his supporters, and thousands of other voters, will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of a stay. Elections cannot be stopped and restarted on a dime, especially after voting begins,” the brief stated.

An appeals court ruled against Kistner, stating that there are good reasons for federal elections to take place on a uniform date and that only compelling circumstances allow a state to change the date. Kistner’s case is still pending in the appeals court, but it won’t be considered until after Election Day.