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For two U.S. diplomats from St. Paul, Appeals Court ballot ruling may mean losing their vote

The time it takes mail to arrive from abroad makes the impact of Thursday’s ruling that ballots received after Election Day be separated more acute.

The Consulate General of the United States of America is pictured in Frankfurt, Germany.
The Consulate General of the United States of America is pictured in Frankfurt, Germany.
REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

There’s no guarantee that Michael Weber’s vote will get home in time.

Seven weeks ago, in Frankfurt, Germany, Weber put his ballot in the mail and sent it off to the Ramsey County Elections Office.

Weber, a newly minted U.S. diplomat working at the U.S. Consulate in Frankfurt, is from St. Paul. And as chance would have it, so is his coworker, Dan Palmquist, who has been at the job for about a decade. Both live in Frankfurt with their spouses.

Four weeks ago, all four of them sent in their ballots. All of them have checked the Secretary of State’s website. And they’ve been in contact with Ramsey County.

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Ramsey County doesn’t have their ballots.

All four of them contacted Ramsey County and sent new ballots via FedEx on Friday (they paid extra for expedited shipping). But even then, there’s no guarantee that the ballots will get there by Tuesday afternoon on Election Day.

The group’s situation may be unique, but is exemplary of the hurdles facing voters who thought they had a one week grace period to send in their ballot, as long as it was postmarked by Election Day. That grace period, established by a consent decree between the Minnesota Secretary of State and the Alliance of Retired Americans, was just disputed in a 2-1 decision by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday after a legal challenge from Republicans in the state. The court ruled that now, all ballots received after Election Day must be separated and the legality of their acceptance, at least with respect to the presidential election, decided at a later date.

For Weber and Palmquist, the confusion so close to election day, and the lack of answers about where their ballot went, isn’t comforting.

“I represent the United States here,” said Palmquist. “I’m a diplomat representing the United States government. And for me to have questions about why my ballot is not being received or counted makes it harder to do my job.”

In September, the USPS Office of Inspector General noted in an audit report significant concerns about mail-in voting for Americans abroad, saying there could be significant parcel delays and severe staffing shortages if the USPS did not prepare in time.

When asked about any potential delays, the USPS press representative for Minnesota pointed to the Inspector General report and said: “USPS has no additional information to provide.”

Around the country, several states have had significant problems with mail delays. The Guardian tested first class-mail in Michigan cities and found a significant portion of letters did not arrive on time and at least one was unaccounted for.  And The Texas Tribune found that at least one voter in London was still waiting to receive his Texas ballot as of late October. 

“They’re four separate pieces of mail. I mean, everything else that I’ve mailed from here, not that I’ve been here for that long of a time, but everything else I mailed from here gets to the states,” Weber said. “No problem.”

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Weber’s spouse, Elisa Johnson, said she’s checked the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website several times and talked to Ramsey County elections officials. Still, no confirmation of any ballots.

“I have some concern about my ballot getting counted, especially if it doesn’t arrive by Tuesday,” Johnson said.

In Ramsey County, the number of ballots that have not yet been returned is comparable to 2016.  That election year, the county mailed out 2044 ballots and received 1644 by election day. As of this weekend, the county has mailed out 2418 and received 1899 back so far.

“In response to the ruling, we reset all of our outreach, messages and advertising to emphasize that it’s too late to mail ballots and are providing current options,” said John Siqveland, Director of Communications & Public Relations at Ramsey County. “We expanded hours at our early voting and ballot return sites and added an absentee ballot return site with hours today; and are advising voters of all options to return absentee ballots, vote early in person or vote on Election Day.”

Palmquist said he’s worked all around the world: Turkey, Cuba, Venezuela. And in all circumstances, he said it’s his job is to advocate for free and fair elections. With a situation like this, he said it’s that much harder to justify his position.

“When we lived in Minnesota, we took it for granted,” said Palmquist. “We went to the local library and we voted. Or the church. Or wherever the voting place was. And never had any concerns about that. But you know, now we find ourselves serving the country, but potentially being disenfranchised.”

This story was produced with the help of tips reported through ProPublica’s Electionland project. If you’re a voter, a poll worker, or an election administrator, and you see problems with voting this year: let us know here.