Last week was a busy one on the topic of election judges in the city of Duluth, where progress was being made on filling vacancies, and a lawsuit was filed against the city for alleged inconsistencies with state law in its oversight of absentee balloting.

City Clerk Chelsea Helmer, reporting during a Duluth City Council agenda session, said a shortage of judges was filling up. The city requires at least 230 election judges to fill 34 precincts and conduct absentee duties. It faced a shortage due to many veteran judges declining to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re feeling good at this point as far as our staffing levels,” Helmer said, citing positive feedback from community members willing to work the Aug. 11 primary and Nov. 3 general election.

The council is expected to approve the names of nearly 230 judges at its meeting this week.

The Minnesota Voters Alliance, Republican Party of Minnesota, local state Senate candidate Donna Bergstrom and three election judges filed a lawsuit last week in District Court in Duluth to force the city to follow election laws related to absentee ballot board appointments.

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“Duluth has skirted the law for years, despite the clear guidance from the Minnesota statute that specifies how absentee ballot boards are to be established,” said Bergstrom, the Republican nominee in the Minnesota Senate District 7 race, which features a Democratic primary between incumbent Sen. Erik Simonson and party-endorsed Jen McEwen.

Among the city's alleged failings, the lawsuit says city officials play an improper role in conducting absentee ballot acceptances or rejections. The lawsuit in Duluth follows a similar lawsuit filed earlier against the city of Minneapolis.

The city of Duluth said it hasn't received the court filing and declined to comment other than the following statement issued by spokesperson Phil Jents: “Election administration is conducted in accordance with state and federal law.”

In approving election judges this week, a total of 10 judges will be assigned to an absentee ballot board. Helmer explained to the City Council that board duties included weekly ballot confirmations, an acceptance or rejection process that includes double-checking signatures and ballot identification numbers. The board is also charged with processing the ballots by feeding them through a ballot-counting machine.

The White House and President Donald Trump claim the absentee voting process is rampant with fraud.

Andy Cilek, executive director of the Minnesota Voters Alliance, emphatically denied any implication that the lawsuit is intended to cast doubt on the absentee voting process.

On its website, the Minnesota Voters Alliance, based in St. Paul, refers to itself as a nonpartisan entity. It says its aim is to increase voter participation and oversee election integrity.

“What we’re trying to do is fix it,” Cilek said. “It’s a statewide problem.”

Cilek shared an email exchange with Helmer that is central to the lawsuit. In it, Helmer seems to confirm she does use city staff, the assistant city clerk, in the process of accepting or rejecting absentee ballots. State law allows for "deputy city clerks" to work in conjunction with absentee ballot boards. The lawsuit takes offense with Duluth's use of an "assistant city clerk."

Duluth City Clerk Chelsea Helmer talks to election judges during a training session at City Hall in 2018. (File / News Tribune)
Duluth City Clerk Chelsea Helmer talks to election judges during a training session at City Hall in 2018. (File / News Tribune)

When the News Tribune spoke earlier this month with Marcia Johnson, an election judge in Duluth, she was processing absentee ballots — work the lawsuit alleges was solely conducted by Helmer and city staff.

“I’ve been working down at City Hall since the end of May,” Johnson said at the time.

When asked why the lawsuits only target Minneapolis and Duluth, places with high turnout from Democratic-Farmer-Labor voters, Cilek said: “All we’re saying is there has to be a party balance." He added that he anticipated further lawsuits to come in other Minnesota cities.

In 2018, the News Tribune reported on election judge assignments, learning that not all judges are assigned to their own precincts, and that Helmer assigns election judges by balancing Republican- and Democratic-aligned judges.

Judges are sent to where they’re needed most or positioned strategically so that each polling place has a partisan balance among its judging ranks as part of what Helmer explained was a check-and-balance to ensure a fair voting process.

“You have to set aside all of your personal feelings," Helmer told judges assembled at a 2018 election training.