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Secretary of State says DOJ can't come into Minneapolis polling places without invitation

The Department of Justice said its staff will be on the ground monitoring voting compliance in Minneapolis and 43 other jurisdictions on Tuesday.

MINNEAPOLIS — The Department of Justice (DOJ) plans to send staff to Minneapolis to monitor voting compliance, but Minnesota's Secretary of State said those agents will not be allowed into polling places without an invitation.

The DOJ announced Monday that it will monitor compliance with federal voting rights laws on Election Day in 44 jurisdictions, including Minneapolis. The staff will be from the Civil Rights Division's Voting Section, according to a news release from DOJ.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said on a briefing with reporters Monday morning that he had just learned of the DOJ's plans.

"I'm not sure what that means," Simon said. He clarified that Minnesota law is very explicit about who is allowed within 100 feet of a polling place. Even law enforcement officers cannot come within 50 feet unless by invitation, Simon said.

The Minnesota statute states, "Except when summoned by an election judge to restore the peace or when voting or registering to vote, no peace officer shall enter or remain in a polling place or stand within 50 feet of the entrance of a polling place."

He said that Minneapolis could consent to having federal agents monitoring polling places, but that the city would have to invite those agents in.

A DOJ spokesperson sent KARE 11 a statement saying, "Lawyers in Civil Rights division reached out to elections officials for every jurisdiction in advance, including Minnesota, so this should not come as a surprise at all. The Civil Rights Division is continuing its mission in monitoring in the field for the November federal election, just as it has in years past. The monitors are distributed across the country, as we have in prior federal election years. Every federal election year, the Department makes a new assessment of where the Department should be, and send out staff based on that assessment for that year."

The City of Minneapolis also issued a statement saying, "The City is aware that the Department of Justice intends to position election monitors at some of its polling places, and appreciates that the 14 federal monitors will be located outside of the 100 foot buffer zone, as allowed under Minnesota election law. It is the City’s understanding that those monitors will contact the City with any concerns about anything they might observe."

Simon reiterated the message of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison Monday that voting on Election Day Tuesday will be safe and secure.

"Minnesota has had a really good record of tranquil, peaceful, thoughtful polling places," Simon said. He said he believes his office has gotten the word out to anyone who is "thinking they're helping" by showing up at polling places, and that those people will decline to show up.

A City of Minneapolis spokesperson said there will be a sergeant-at-arms at each polling place in the city on Nov. 3. "They help ensure an orderly voting process," according to the spokesperson, and are not law enforcement.

The same Minnesota statute allows election judges to appoint a sergeant-at-arms "to keep the peace" or otherwise assist. The sergeant-at-arms can remove anyone who engages in disorderly conduct "despite a warning to desist," but cannot otherwise interfere with voters.

RELATED: Minnesota AG reminds voters of their in-person rights

According to Simon, 1,716,575 absentee ballots have now been accepted in Minnesota, out of 2,055,519 that were requested. That means 338,944 absentee ballots have still not been turned in. He's encouraging those people to either hand them in by 3 p.m. on Tuesday, or vote in person instead.

RELATED: Last day to vote early: How to make sure your ballot is counted in Minnesota

Those numbers indicate that Minnesota is already at 58% of its 2016 voter turnout. A significantly higher number is expected by the end of the day Monday, as a backlog of votes from the weekend is counted.

Simon said he thinks the state could easily break its modern-day record of approximately 77% turnout in 2008, and possibly even beat the "coveted 80%" that Minnesota hit in the 1950s.

"I remain an optimist," Simon said. "Minnesota is number one in voter turnout for a reason. ... We will always find a way to vote in Minnesota, and we always do, even in a once-in-a-century pandemic."

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