Judge dismisses election official’s mail ballot lawsuit in North Dakota

Feb 2, 2024, 9:49 AM | Updated: 10:02 am

FILE - Burleigh County Auditor Mark Splonskowski poses July 7, 2023, in front of the state Capitol ...

FILE - Burleigh County Auditor Mark Splonskowski poses July 7, 2023, in front of the state Capitol in Bismarck, N.D. Republicans are challenging extended mail ballot deadlines in at least two states in a move that could have severe implications for mail voting nationwide ahead of this year's presidential election. A lawsuit filed last week in Mississippi follows a similar one last year in North Dakota, both brought in heavily Republican states before conservative federal courts. (AP Photo/Jack Dura, File)

(AP Photo/Jack Dura, File)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A federal judge in North Dakota has dismissed a lawsuit challenging the acceptance of mail-in ballots after election day brought by a county election official and backed by a legal group aligned with former President Donald Trump.

In his Friday ruling, U.S. District Judge Daniel Traynor said Burleigh County Auditor Mark Splonskowski lacked standing, did not allege a specific constitutional violation, is not conflicted by his oath of office, and that the state election director named in the lawsuit “is not a potential cause for Splonskowski’s alleged injuries because she has no enforcement authority.”

North Dakota Republican Secretary of State Michael Howe welcomed the ruling as “a win for the rule of law in North Dakota and a win for our military and overseas voters.”

In September, the judge had asked the parties whether he should dismiss the case because Splonskowski had no approval from the county commission to sue in his official capacity as auditor. He said he brought the lawsuit against the state’s election director as an individual and not in an official capacity.

Splonskowski, backed by the Public Interest Legal Foundation, filed the lawsuit in July. He argued he “faces an impossibility in enforcing the law” around whether to accept mail-in ballots received after election day, alleging federal and state law conflict as to when those ballots must be turned in. He claimed he risks criminal penalties.

North Dakota law allows mailed ballots received after election day to be counted by county canvassing boards, which meet 13 days after the election, but those ballots must be postmarked before the date of the election.

In September, attorneys for the Voting Section of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division filed a statement of interest in the case, saying, “Permitting the counting of otherwise valid ballots cast on or before election day even though they are received later does not violate federal statutes setting the day for federal elections. Indeed, this practice not only complies with federal law but can be vital in ensuring that military and overseas voters are able to exercise their right to vote.”

The Public Interest Legal Foundation brought voting-related lawsuits in Pennsylvania and Arizona amid Trump’s claims of 2020 election fraud.

A spokesperson for the group did not immediately respond to an email for comment on the judge’s decision. She said earlier this week that “if a court finds that accepting ballots that arrive after election day violates federal law, this would impact other states that have similar polices.”

The foundation asked election officials of at least two other counties about joining the lawsuit, The Associated Press learned through email queries to all 53 county offices. Those officials declined to join.

Splonskowski was elected in 2022 as the top election official in the county that is home to Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital city.

A similar lawsuit filed last week in Mississippi by Republican entities, including the Republican National Committee, also targets mail ballots received after election day.

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Judge dismisses election official’s mail ballot lawsuit in North Dakota