Self Advocacy Solutions N.D. et al v. Jaeger et al
ORDER by Chief Judge Peter D. Welte granting 11 Motion for Preliminary Injunction. (MK)
Case 3:20-cv-00071-PDW-ARS Document 29 Filed 06/03/20 Page 1 of 22
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NORTH DAKOTA
Self Advocacy Solutions N.D., League of
Women Voters of North Dakota, and
Maria Fallon Romo,
ORDER GRANTING MOTION FOR
Case No. 3:20-cv-00071
Alvin Jaeger, in his official capacity as
Secretary of State, and Debbie Nelson,
in her official capacity as County Auditor )
of Grand Forks County,
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all voters in North Dakota’s June 9, 2020 primary
election will be required to vote by mail. The Plaintiffs challenge two North Dakota statutes that
vest election officials with authority to reject mail-in ballots based on signature discrepancies,
insofar as the statutes fail to provide affected voters with notice and an opportunity to verify their
ballots before rejection. Now pending is the Plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction filed on
May 11, 2020. Doc. No. 11. On May 22, 2020, the Defendants responded in opposition to the
motion. Doc. Nos. 18, 21. The Plaintiffs filed a reply brief on May 25, 2020. Doc. No. 22. On
June 1, 2020, the Court held a telephonic hearing on the motion. Doc. No. 27. For the reasons
below, the motion is granted.
The Plaintiffs assail the omission of notice and cure procedures from the signature-
matching requirement for absentee ballots found in North Dakota Century Code §§ 16.1-07-09
and 16.1-07-12. The facts present as straightforward. A summary of North Dakota’s absentee
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ballot procedures and the challenged statutes is followed by an introduction of the parties and the
Absentee Ballot Procedures and the Signature-Matching Requirement
Any eligible North Dakota voter can request an absentee ballot. N.D. Cent. Code § 16.107-01. To do so, a voter submits an application to a county official (usually the county auditor).
Id. § 16.1-07-04. The application requires, among other things, the voter’s name, date of birth,
residential address, telephone number, and an ID number from a valid form of identification. Id.
§ 16.1-07-06(1). A voter must also affix a signature on the application. Id. If unable to sign, a
voter marks an “X” and a disinterested person is required to sign the application as a “witness to
the mark.” Id. § 16.1-07-06(2). After verifying an applicant’s eligibility as a qualified elector, the
designated county official sends the voter a ballot. Id. § 16.1-07-08.
The ballot arrives with a secrecy envelope, as well as a return envelope that includes a voter
affidavit on the envelope’s exterior. Doc. No. 21-3. The affidavit does not state that a voter’s
signature must correspond with the signature provided on the ballot application. See id. After
filling out the ballot, a voter slips it first into the secrecy envelope and then into the return envelope.
Doc. No. 21-1, p. 3. At that point, the voter signs and dates the affidavit. Id. Again, if a voter is
unable to sign, the voter marks an “X” and the signature of a disinterested witness is required.
N.D. Cent. Code § 16.1-07-08(2). Then the voter mails the ballot back to the designated county
official. To be counted, the ballot must be postmarked by the day before the election and received
before the county canvassing board meets on the sixth day after the election. Id. § 16.1-07-09.
When the vote-counting process begins, there are two sets of relevant election officials.
The first is the election board located at each polling place. See id. § 16.1-05-01. An election
board consists of one election inspector hired by the county auditor, at least two election judges
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appointed by the district chairs of the two political parties that received the highest number of
votes in the preceding gubernatorial election, and at least two poll clerks hired by the county
auditor. Id. The second is the county canvassing board, which certifies the results submitted by
the election boards. See id. § 16.1-15-15. The canvassing board is comprised of the county
auditor, the county recorder, the chair of the county commission, and one representative from each
of the two political parties that received the highest number of votes in the preceding gubernatorial
For absentee ballots received before the polls close on election day, North Dakota Century
Code § 16.1-07-12 comes into operation and provides in relevant part as follows:
At any time beginning on the day before election day and the closing of the polls
on election day, the election clerks and board members of the relevant polling place
first shall compare the signature on the application for an absent voter’s ballot with
the signature on the voter’s affidavit provided for in section 16.1-07-08 to ensure
the signatures correspond. . . . If the affidavit on the outer envelope of a returned
absentee ballot is found to be insufficient, or that the signatures on the application
and affidavit do not correspond, or that the applicant is not then a duly qualified
elector of the precinct, the vote may not be allowed, but without opening the absent
voter’s envelope, the election inspector or election judge shall mark across the face
thereof “rejected as defective” or “rejected as not an elector”, as the case may be.
These rejected ballots are then turned over to the county canvassing board for final
determination of eligibility.
If the canvassing board finds that the signatures do not correspond, the ballot is rejected. Id. §
Absentee ballots received after the polls close on election day are forwarded directly to the
county canvassing board. Id. § 16.1-07-09. The canvassing board is then tasked with determining
whether “the signatures on the absentee ballot application and the voter’s affidavit were signed by
the same person before allowing the ballot to be tallied.” Id. The voter is never notified in the
event a ballot is rejected for a mismatched signature. See Doc. No. 11-12.
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The North Dakota Secretary of State prepares a manual on election procedures for election
officials. Doc. No. 11-5. That manual states, “If . . . the signatures on the application and affidavit
do not match . . . the vote may not be allowed.” Id. at 14. The sole guidance the manual provides
on signature verification is that officials should “[c]ompare the signature on the application for the
absentee ballot with the signature on the back of the absentee ballot envelope (the voter’s affidavit)
to ensure the signatures match.” Id. Election officials receive no training in handwriting
comparison. Doc. No. 1, ¶ 41. County canvassing boards do not receive guidance on signature
matching beyond the basic statutory requirements. See id.
A declaration from Dr. Linton A. Mohammed, a forensic document examiner, opines that
without proper training, North Dakota election officials “are likely to make erroneous signaturecomparison determinations” resulting “in a significant number of erroneous rejections.” Doc. No.
11-16, pp. 7, 9. Dr. Mohammed explains that persons untrained in handwriting comparison
techniques are more likely to incorrectly identify signatures originating from the same person as
noncorresponding than they are to incorrectly identify signatures originating from different people
as corresponding. Id. at 8. He also notes the risk of error is exacerbated where only two signatures
are used for comparison. Id. at 9.
As another compounding factor, the processes canvassing boards use for verifying
signatures vary from county to county. See Doc. No. 11-6. Some counties simply compare
applications to affidavits and conduct no further inquiry. See Doc. No. 11-7. Others consider
extrinsic factors, such as a voter’s situation and history. See Doc. No. 11-11. Using this approach,
if a canvassing board member happens to know a particular voter’s circumstances, the canvassing
board may accept the ballot. Id.
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According to a survey conducted by the United States Election Assistance Commission,
North Dakota county canvassing boards rejected 334 absentee ballots for mismatched signatures
in the 2018 general election. Doc. No. 11-4, p. 3. That figure represented more than 60% of all
absentee ballots rejected statewide. See id. Rejection rates for signature discrepancies ranged
from 0% in 27 counties to as high as 1.14% in Morton County and 1.74% in Nelson County. Id.
Also pertinent for the impending primary election is the impact of the COVID-19
pandemic. Ordinarily, counties must offer at least one in-person polling place for every election.
N.D. Cent. Code § 16.1-11.1-01(1).
Governor Doug Burgum temporarily suspended this
requirement in a March 26, 2020 order. Doc. No. 11-21. Since then, each of North Dakota’s 53
counties has chosen to conduct this year’s primary election entirely by mail. Doc. No. 11-22.
The absentee voting process for the primary election commenced in late April. See id. In
addition to voters requesting absentee ballots as usual, the Secretary of State’s office mailed ballot
applications to all voters listed in the state’s central voter file. Doc. No. 21-1, p. 2. The central
voter file complies data on those who have voted in past North Dakota elections but does not
encompass all individuals who are eligible to vote. Id. As of May 21, 2020, county officials had
distributed 161,256 ballots, and 39,734 voters had already submitted their ballots. Id. at 11.
Introduction of Parties
The Plaintiffs are one individual and two nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations. Plaintiff
Maria Fallon Romo is a regular voter and a resident of Grand Forks, North Dakota. Doc. No. 1117, p. 2. She suffers from multiple sclerosis, which diminishes her ability to write neatly or
consistently. Id. In the 2018 general election, Romo attempted to cast an absentee ballot. Id. She
recently learned that election officials erroneously rejected her ballot after determining that the
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signature on her application did not correspond with the signature on her voter affidavit. Id. at 3.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Romo will be required to vote by mail for the upcoming
Plaintiff Self Advocacy Solutions N.D. (“SAS”) is a Grand Forks, North Dakota, nonprofit
organization “dedicated to protecting the civil and human rights of people with disabilities.” Doc.
No. 11-19, p. 2. As part of this mission, SAS encourages people with disabilities to engage in the
political process and exercise their right to vote. Id. at 3. Allen Lee Marx, Jr., President of SAS,
states that the organization’s members often face difficulties when attempting to vote in person,
and many prefer the more convenient alternative of casting absentee ballots. Id. at 4. He points
out that SAS members’ disabilities can result in signature variation over time. Id. For that reason,
Marx believes SAS members “are at particular risk of being deprived of their right to vote because
of signatures that election [officials] deem to not ‘correspond.’” Id.
Plaintiff League of Women Voters of North Dakota (“LWVND”) is a Fargo, North Dakota,
nonprofit organization “dedicated to encouraging informed and active participation in government,
working to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influencing public policy
through education and advocacy.” Doc. No. 11-20, p. 3. This work includes providing education
to LWVND members and the public on voting via absentee ballot. Id. The organization’s
President, Jan Renae Lynch, notes that many LWVND members are elderly or have physical
limitations that make writing difficult. Id. She believes those “members are at increased risk of
being disenfranchised by a signature issue.” Id.
The Defendants are sued in their official capacities.
Defendant Alvin Jaeger (the
“Secretary”) is the North Dakota Secretary of State. The Century Code prescribes the Secretary’s
duties for elections in chapter 16.1-01. Those duties include serving as the supervisor of elections,
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implementing uniform training programs for election officials, and publishing a manual on election
procedures. N.D. Cent. Code § 16.1-01-01. Upon his request or the request of any election official,
the Secretary holds “the power to examine . . . any election ballot or other material . . . for the
purpose of determining sufficient compliance with the law.” Id. § 16.1-01-01(1). Consistent with
state election law, the Secretary is imbued with discretionary rulemaking authority to carry out his
duties and to “assure uniform voting opportunities throughout the state.” Id. § 16.1-01-01(3).
Defendant Debbie Nelson (“Auditor Nelson”) is the County Auditor of Grand Forks
County. The Century Code designates each county auditor as the “county administrator of
elections.” Id. § 16.1-01-01(4). County auditors are “responsible to the secretary of state for the
proper administration within the auditor’s county of state laws, rules, and regulations concerning
election procedures.” Id. Prior to each election, county auditors must conduct training sessions
on election laws and procedures for election board members. Id. § 16.1-01-01(5). As mentioned,
county auditors serve as one of five members on the county canvassing board. Id. § 16.1-15-15.
The Plaintiffs filed their complaint on May 1, 2020. Doc. No. 1. Invoking 42 U.S.C. §
1983, the complaint pleads a deprivation of procedural due process and the imposition of an undue
burden on the right to vote, in contravention of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United
States Constitution. Id. at 13-17. The complaint seeks three discrete forms of relief. First, the
Plaintiffs request declaratory judgment finding the two challenged statutes unconstitutional,
insofar as they fail to provide notice or an opportunity to cure a signature discrepancy before a
ballot is rejected. Second, they ask for the Court to enjoin the Secretary, Auditor Nelson, and all
election officials acting in concert with them from enforcing the signature-matching requirement
absent adequate notice and cure procedures for the June 9, 2020 primary and future elections. And
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third, they request the Court to affirmatively order the Secretary to instruct county election officials
to afford voters notice and an opportunity to confirm the validity of their ballots prior to rejection
based on a signature mismatch. Id. at 17-18. The Defendants filed an answer to the complaint on
June 1, 2020. Doc. No. 26. The Plaintiffs filed their motion for preliminary injunction on May
11, 2020, and the parties submitted timely response and reply briefs thereafter. See Doc. No. 11.
Federal courts must possess jurisdiction before reaching the merits of a case. Va. House
of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, 587 U.S. ___, 139 S. Ct. 1945, 1950 (2019). “Article III limits
federal jurisdiction to ‘Cases’ and ‘Controversies,’ and there is no case or controversy unless the
party initiating the action has standing to sue.” Owner-Operator Indep. Drivers Ass’n, Inc. v. U.S.
Dep’t of Transp., 831 F.3d 961, 966 (8th Cir. 2016) (citing Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 750
Standing requires (1) an injury in fact, (2) causation, and (3) redressability. Hughes v. City
of Cedar Rapids, 840 F.3d 987, 992 (8th Cir. 2016). An injury in fact is “the actual or imminent
invasion of a concrete and particularized legal interest.” Kuehl v. Sellner, 887 F.3d 845, 850 (8th
Cir. 2018) (citations omitted). Where plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief, “they must
show they are experiencing an ongoing injury or an immediate threat of injury.” Webb ex rel. K.S.
v. Smith, 936 F.3d 808, 815 (8th Cir. 2019) (citing Frost v. Sioux City, 920 F.3d 1158, 1161 (8th
Cir. 2019)). Causation is satisfied when the injury is “fairly traceable to the action of the defendant,
and not the result of the independent action of some third party not before the court.” Balogh v.
Lombardi, 816 F.3d 536, 543 (8th Cir. 2016) (cleaned up). Redressability is “a likelihood that the
injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.” Kuehl, 887 F.3d at 850 (citations omitted).
Case 3:20-cv-00071-PDW-ARS Document 29 Filed 06/03/20 Page 9 of 22
The party invoking federal jurisdiction bears the burden to establish standing. Lujan v.
Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992). Courts “assume that on the merits the plaintiffs
would be successful in their claims” when undertaking a standing analysis. Am. Farm Bureau
Fed’n v. EPA, 836 F.3d 963, 968 (8th Cir. 2016) (quoting Muir v. Navy Fed. Credit Union, 529
F.3d 1100, 1106 (D.C. Cir. 2008)). The Plaintiffs “must demonstrate standing separately for each
form of relief sought.” Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Envtl. Servs. (TOC), Inc., 528 U.S.
167, 185 (2000) (citations omitted). At the pleadings stage, general factual allegations suffice to
support standing. See Jones v. Jegley, 947 F.3d 1100, 1104 (8th Cir. 2020). In addition to
considering affidavits and other evidence in the record, the Court assumes the factual allegations
in the complaint are true and construes them in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs. See id.
The Court initially addresses Romo’s standing to sue. The Defendants do not contest that
she meets the injury-in-fact element. And for good reason. The Plaintiffs have sufficiently pled
that she is experiencing the immediate threat of injury. As alleged, Romo’s multiple sclerosis,
while not rendering her unable to sign her name, diminishes her ability to write neatly or
consistently. Considering election officials incorrectly rejected Romo’s ballot in the 2018 general
election for a signature discrepancy—coupled with the fact that she will again have to vote by mail
in the upcoming primary because of the COVID-19 pandemic—there is a realistic threat of an
impending deprivation of her right to vote. Romo satisfies the first standing requirement.
The Defendants vigorously contest causation and redressability, however. They attempt to
divert any fault for Romo’s threatened injury toward local election boards and county canvassing
boards as the entities that make the ultimate determinations on whether a ballot is rejected for a
signature discrepancy. This tactic is unavailing.
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“When a plaintiff brings a pre-enforcement challenge to the constitutionality of a particular
statutory provision, the causation element of standing requires the named defendants to possess
authority to enforce the complained-of provision.” Dig. Recognition Network, Inc. v. Hutchinson,
803 F.3d 952, 957-58 (8th Cir. 2015) (cleaned up). In tandem, suits for declaratory and injunctive
relief against state officials raise the specter of Eleventh Amendment state sovereign immunity.
See Calzone v. Hawley, 866 F.3d 866, 869 (8th Cir. 2017). Under the Ex parte Young exception
to Eleventh Amendment immunity, a sued official must have “some connection with the
enforcement of the act” to be a proper defendant. 209 U.S. 123, 157 (1908). “[A] state official’s
requisite connection with the enforcement of a statute may arise out of ‘the general law’ or be
‘specially created by the act itself.’” Calzone, 866 F.3d at 870 (quoting Ex parte Young, 209 U.S.
at 157). The Ex parte Young inquiry is analogous to the causation requirement for Article III
standing. See id. at 869; Citizens for Equal Prot. v. Bruning, 455 F.3d 859, 864 (8th Cir. 2006),
abrogated on other grounds, Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015).
Causation at the pleading stage is a “relatively modest” burden and is not a mandate that a
defendant’s conduct be “the very last step in the chain of causation.” Bennett v. Spear, 520 U.S.
154, 169, 171 (1997). That means the causation requirement “does not exclude injury produced
by determinative or coercive effect upon the action of someone else.” Id. at 169. To that effect,
“an injury may be indirect and still be sufficient to confer standing so long as that injury is fairly
traceable to the defendant’s acts or omissions.” Belles v. Schweiker, 720 F.2d 509, 514 (8th Cir.
1983) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
In this instance, the named Defendants possess at least some authority to enforce the
signature-matching requirement directly. The Secretary, for example, holds “the power to examine
. . . any election ballot or other material . . . for the purpose of determining sufficient compliance
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with the law.” N.D. Cent. Code § 16.1-01-01(1). Auditor Nelson sits as one of five members on
the canvassing board for Grand Forks County.
Moreover, both officials play central roles in enforcing the challenged statutes through
subordinates. The Secretary serves as the state’s supervisor of elections and is statutorily required
to implement uniform training programs for election officials. This includes the preparation of an
election procedures manual, which instructs election board members that voters’ ballots “may not
be allowed” based on mismatched signatures. Doc. No. 11-5, p. 14. The manual no doubt has a
“determinative or coercive effect” on the actions of election officials. Bennett, 520 U.S. at 169.
In a similar vein, Auditor Nelson is the election supervisor at the county level “responsible to the
secretary of state for the proper administration within the auditor’s county of state laws, rules, and
regulations concerning election procedures.” N.D. Cent. Code § 16.1-01-01(4). She is tasked by
statute with hiring and overseeing the election officials that make the initial determination on
whether to reject a ballot based on a signature mismatch. Auditor Nelson is also required to
conduct training sessions with all election officials in Grand Forks County to ensure compliance
with election protocols. These facts illustrate that the Defendants possess the requisite connection
with the challenged statutes’ enforcement, rendering the risk of injury to Romo fairly traceable to
The Plaintiffs further emphasize that the threat of injury to Romo results from more than
the rote enforcement of the signature-matching requirement. In particular, they decry the failure
to adopt notice and cure procedures. This allegation places the ball squarely in the Secretary’s
court. North Dakota law authorizes the Secretary to engage in rulemaking consistent with state
election law to “assure uniform voting opportunities throughout the state.” Id. § 16.1-01-01(3).
And persuasively, the Century Code already mandates the Secretary to “establish a uniform
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procedure for county auditors to follow when notifying a military or overseas voter that the voter’s
absentee ballot was rejected.” Id. § 16.1-07-17. Assuming the Plaintiffs would prevail on the
merits of their claim, sufficient facts assign the Secretary responsibility to establish, and county
auditors to implement, notice and cure procedures. The assertion that Romo’s threatened injury
stems from the failure to adopt adequate procedures is therefore traceable to the Defendants. See
Belles, 720 F.2d at 514 (finding plaintiff’s indirect injury traceable to defendant government
agency based on allegation of failure to provide procedures for notice and opportunity to respond).
Romo clears the “relatively modest” burden to establish causation at the pleadings stage. Bennett,
520 U.S. at 171.
Moving to redressability, an order enjoining the Defendants (as well as election officials
acting in concert with them) from rejecting mail-in ballots based on signature discrepancies in the
absence of adequate notice and cure procedures is likely to redress the threatened injury to Romo.
The same is true for an affirmative order requiring the Secretary to instruct county auditors to
implement such procedures for the upcoming primary election. Redressability is present.
In opposition, the Secretary leans heavily on a recent decision from the Eleventh Circuit
Court of Appeals. In Jacobson v. Florida Secretary of State, 957 F.3d 1193 (11th Cir. 2020), the
court held that the plaintiffs lacked standing in a suit challenging a ballot-ordering statute. The
appeal occurred following a bench trial. Id. at 1198. The statute at issue required the names of
candidates from the political party that won Florida’s most recent gubernatorial election to appear
first on the general election ballot, with candidates from the second-place party in the most recent
gubernatorial election appearing second. Florida law tasked the state’s 67 county supervisors with
determining ballot ordering.
The Eleventh Circuit determined that the individual county
supervisors were the proper defendants, not the Florida Secretary of State. Id. at 1209-10. The
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court’s reasoning in denying standing rested on two primary grounds: (1) Florida’s county
supervisors were independent elected officials not accountable to the Secretary of State, and (2) a
directive from the Secretary of State instructing the supervisors to alter the ballot ordering would
not have redressed the plaintiffs’ injuries because the supervisors were still bound to follow the
letter of the statute. Id. at 1207-08.
Jacobson is distinguishable in several critical aspects. At the outset, the burden to establish
standing increases successively with the burden of proof at each stage of litigation. Lujan, 504
U.S. at 561. Whereas the Jacobson plaintiffs had to prove standing commensurate with the burden
of proof at trial, here the Plaintiffs need only support standing with general factual allegations—a
significantly less exacting standard. Next, North Dakota’s county auditors lack the degree of
independence granted to Florida’s county supervisors. County auditors are expressly “responsible
to” the Secretary when carrying out election-related duties. N.D. Cent. Code § 16.1-01-01(4).
This also alleviates the redressability problem in Jacobson. County auditors are subordinate to the
Secretary in election matters, and nothing in North Dakota law overtly prohibits the
implementation of notice and cure procedures for mismatched signatures in the mail-in ballot
verification process. The Court concludes Jacobson is inapplicable.
In sum, Romo meets the necessary standing elements at this early juncture. This obviates
the need to consider SAS or LWVND’s standing because “where one plaintiff establishes standing
to sue, the standing of other plaintiffs is immaterial to jurisdiction.” Jones v. Gale, 470 F.3d 1261,
1265 (8th Cir. 2006) (cleaned up). The Court will therefore proceed to the merits.1
Auditor Nelson raised a laches defense in her brief. At oral argument, her counsel indicated that
the laches theory is intended to challenge the Plaintiffs’ diligence in pursuing injunctive relief and
not as a bar to the action outright. As a result, the Court will address the laches argument under
the balance of harms factor for the preliminary injunction analysis.
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Rule 65(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorizes district courts to grant
preliminary injunctions. “A preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy never awarded as
of right.” Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 24 (2008). When
considering a motion for preliminary injunction, the Court weighs the four factors set forth in
Dataphase Systems, Inc., v. C L Systems, Inc., 640 F.2d 109 (8th Cir. 1981) (en banc). The
Dataphase factors include: “(1) the threat of irreparable harm to the movant; (2) the state of balance
between this harm and the injury that granting the injunction will inflict on other parties litigant;
(3) the probability that movant will succeed on the merits; and (4) the public interest.” Id. at 114.
While no one factor is dispositive, the likelihood of success on the merits is most important. Brady
v. Nat’l Football League, 640 F.3d 785, 789 (8th Cir. 2011). The balance of harms and public
interest factors merge when the government is the opposing party. Nken v. Holder, 556 U.S. 418,
435 (2009). The burden to demonstrate the necessity of a preliminary injunction rests with the
movant. General Motors Corp. v. Harry Brown’s, LLC, 563 F.3d 312, 316 (8th Cir. 2009).
Likelihood of Success on the Merits
The Plaintiffs proffer two distinct constitutional violations. First, they assert the signaturematching requirement, without adequate notice and cure procedures, contravenes their Fourteenth
Amendment right to procedural due process. Second, they contend the same regime imposes an
undue burden on their right to vote as protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The
Court addresses only the asserted procedural due process violation because the Plaintiffs are likely
to succeed on that claim, affording complete relief as a result. See Saucedo v. Gardner, 335 F.
Supp. 3d 202, 222 (D.N.H. 2018).
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As an initial matter, the Secretary asserts that the Plaintiffs cannot mount a successful facial
“A facial challenge is really just a claim that the law or policy at issue is
unconstitutional in all its applications.” Bucklew v. Precythe, 587 U.S. ___, 139 S. Ct. 1112, 1127
(2019). Relying on Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, 553 U.S. 181 (2008), the
Secretary contends the signature-matching requirement in not amenable to facial attack because it
burdens a limited number of North Dakota voters. While certainly applicable to constitutional
claims predicated on an undue burden on the right to vote, Crawford is not a barrier to procedural
due process claims. See Saucedo, 335 F. Supp. 3d at 222 (enjoining signature-matching statute
for procedural due process violation without discussing Crawford); Martin v. Kemp, 341 F. Supp.
3d 1326, 1341 (N.D. Ga. 2018) (same). Further, when confronting a facial challenge, “[t]he proper
focus of the constitutional inquiry is the group for whom the law is a restriction, not the group for
whom the law is irrelevant.” City of Los Angeles v. Patel, 576 U.S. 409, 135 S. Ct. 2443, 2451
(2015). Here, the statutes are restrictions only on voters whom election officials identify as
providing noncorresponding signatures. The Plaintiffs lodge a proper facial challenge.3
Turning to the merits, the Fourteenth Amendment familiarly forbids a state actor to
“deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” U.S. Const. amend.
XIV, § 1. The Amendment includes both procedural and substantive components. Troxel v.
Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65 (2000). To prevail on a procedural due process claim, a plaintiff must
Notwithstanding the Plaintiffs’ argument to the contrary, the Court construes their claims as facial
challenges. The complaint expressly seeks declaratory judgment finding North Dakota Century
Code §§ 16.1-07-09 and 16.1-07-12 unconstitutional in the absence of notice and cure procedures,
and the requested relief does not focus on the application of the statutes to individual Plaintiffs.
The Court does not address the Secretary’s arguments regarding a perceived as-applied challenge
from Romo, because neither the complaint nor the Plaintiffs’ preliminary injunction motion
requests individualized relief.
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establish (1) a constitutionally protected interest, and (2) a deprivation of that interest without due
process of law. See Zinermon v. Burch, 494 U.S. 113, 125 (1990).
Beyond debate, the right to vote is a constitutionally protected liberty interest. See Burdick
v. Takushi, 504 U.S. 428, 433 (1992) (citation omitted) (declaring that “voting is of the most
fundamental significance under our constitutional structure”). Although “the right to apply for
and vote via absentee ballot is not constitutionally on par with the fundamental right to vote,” a
state that creates a system for absentee voting “must administer it in accordance with the
Constitution.” Martin, 341 F. Supp. 3d at 1338 (quoting Zessar v. Helander, No. 05 C 1917, 2006
WL 642646, at *6 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 13, 2006)). The importance of this principle is even more evident
where, as here, an absentee ballot is the sole available voting method. Consequently, the Plaintiffs
possess a constitutionally protected interest.
The question now becomes whether the challenged statutes facially effect a deprivation of
the right to vote without due process. “The essential requirements of due process . . . are notice
and an opportunity to respond.” Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 546 (1985).
Because there is no possibility of meaningful postdeprivation process when a voter’s ballot is
rejected (there is no way to vote after an election is over, after all), sufficient predeprivation process
is the constitutional imperative. See Winegar v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 20 F.3d 895,
901 (8th Cir. 1994). On this front, North Dakota’s signature-matching requirement is wholly
deficient. Voters are simply never notified or afforded any opportunity to respond if election
officials reject their ballots for a signature discrepancy. This all but ends the inquiry.
Nonetheless, the Secretary contends that two predeprivation safeguards supply sufficient
process—the ability to mark an “X” on the ballot application and voter affidavit in lieu of a
signature, and the two-tier review system for signature mismatches. The contention that adequate
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process is afforded necessitates consideration of the balancing test articulated in Mathews v.
Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976). Under that test, courts weigh three factors: “(1) the private interest
that will be affected by the state action; (2) the risk of erroneous deprivation of that interest through
the procedures used, and the value of any additional or substitute procedures; and (3) the state’s
interest.” Porter v. Knickrehm, 457 F.3d 794, 798 (8th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted).
The Court finds these factors tip decisively in the Plaintiffs’ favor. The private interest at
stake is the fundamental right to vote, so this first factor is “entitled to substantial weight.” Martin,
341 F. Supp. 3d at 1338. North Dakota’s decision to allow voting via absentee ballot requires the
state to administer the system constitutionally. See id.
For the second factor, the risk of error is significant when the only mechanism available to
prospectively stave off deprivation is the ability to mark an “X” on the ballot application and voter
affidavit. The Secretary asserts that voters should know the law requires signatures to correspond,
and if they are aware of the possibility that their signatures may not match, then they should utilize
the alternative accommodation. This argument is devoid of merit. Neither the application nor the
affidavit inform voters that signatures must correspond for their ballot to count. See Doc. No. 213. The Secretary cannot seriously expect voters to comb through the Century Code in search of a
requirement they have no reason to believe exists.
Equally important, the alternative
accommodation is intended for voters “unable” to sign their name. N.D. Cent. Code §§ 16.1-0706(2), 16.1-07-08(2). So following the Secretary’s logic, voters are charged with not only knowing
whether they are able to produce consistent signatures, but also with knowing that such
inconsistency renders them entirely “unable” to sign their name. In essence, the Secretary expects
voters to read the minds of election officials before deciding to affix a signature on an absentee
ballot. That cannot be the process due.
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Furthermore, Dr. Mohammed’s declaration convincingly demonstrates that the two-tier
review system by the election boards and canvassing boards is similarly inadequate to provide due
process. He opines that without proper training in handwriting comparison, North Dakota election
officials are more likely accept invalid absentee ballots than to erroneously reject valid absentee
ballots. Dr. Mohammed also sets out a host of reasons that the same voter’s signature may vary
over time and identifies a particularly high risk of error where only two samples are used for
comparison. The result is the outright disenfranchisement of otherwise qualified electors. The
value of additional procedures to safeguard against erroneous ballot rejections therefore becomes
apparent. Attempting to contact voters and allowing an opportunity to verify ballots ensures
compliance with the bare-minimum requirements of procedural due process. The second factor
favors the Plaintiffs.
Addressing the third factor, the state’s interest does not outweigh the value of the additional
notice and cure procedures that protect the fundamental right to vote. To be sure, the state holds
important interests in preventing voter fraud and upholding the integrity of elections.
Crawford, 554 U.S. at 191-92.
But allowing voters to verify the validity of their ballots
demonstrably advances—rather than hinders—these goals. As the Secretary notes, the purpose of
the signature-matching requirement is to ensure the same person that signed the ballot application
is the person casting the ballot. Notice and cure procedures do exactly that by confirming the
validity of legitimate voters’ ballots, preventing voter fraud and increasing confidence in our
electoral system in the process.
And any fiscal or administrative burden is miniscule when compared to the palpable threat
of disenfranchisement. In the 2018 general election, half of North Dakota’s 53 counties did not
reject a single ballot for a signature discrepancy, meaning there would often be no increased burden
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on county election officials. Doc. No. 11-4, pp. 2-3. The highest number of rejections for signature
mismatches came from Burleigh County (the second-most populous county in the state) at 51,
while Grand Forks County (Auditor Nelson’s county) rejected a mere 21. Id. Attempting to
contact this limited number of voters in the time between the day before election day, when the
signature comparison process begins, and six days after election day, when the county canvassing
boards convenes, is far from an insurmountable endeavor. Additionally, county auditors are
already familiar with contacting voters that submit absentee ballots with missing information, so
corresponding with voters regarding ballot errors is not uncharted territory. N.D. Cent. Code §
16.1-07-10. The state’s interest is insufficient to overshadow the private interests at stake and the
benefit of constitutionally necessary procedures.
The signature-matching requirement found in North Dakota Century Code §§ 16.1-07-09
and 16.1-07-12 is likely facially unconstitutional, insofar as the statutes fail—under all
circumstances—to provide affected voters with notice and an opportunity to cure a signature
discrepancy before a ballot is rejected. Accordingly, the Court finds the Plaintiffs have established
a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their procedural due process claim.
Remaining Preliminary Injunction Factors
The Plaintiffs successfully carry the burden on the three remaining preliminary injunction
factors as well. The second factor, irreparable harm, is clearly met. There is also no possibility of
monetary relief. And if a ballot is wrongly rejected for a signature mismatch, the voter is
irreversibly disenfranchised for that election. See Fla. Democratic Party v. Detzner, Case No.
4:16cv607-MW/CAS, 2016 WL 6090943, at *8 (N.D. Fla. Oct. 16, 2016) (citation omitted)
(noting in the election context, “this isn’t golf: there are no mulligans”).
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For the combined balance of harms and public interest factors, the Defendants begin by
pointing out that “[a]ny time a State is enjoined by a court from effectuating statutes enacted by
representatives of its people, it suffers a form of irreparable injury.” Maryland v. King, 567 U.S.
1301, 1301 (2012) (Roberts, C.J., in chambers) (cleaned up). Though true, the Court finds that the
harm to the state is outweighed by the harm inherent in the deprivation of the Plaintiffs’
fundamental right to vote. See Martin, 341 F. Supp. 3d at 1340. Indeed, an injunction will not
prevent the state from enforcing the signature-matching requirement, but rather will require
enforcement to comply with the Constitution.
The Defendants offer two other theories in opposition to a preliminary injunction on public
harm and interest grounds that warrant discussion. They contend that first, the Plaintiffs waited
too long to file both this action and the present motion, and second, that the Court should not enjoin
the enforcement of the challenged statutes this close to the June 9, 2020 primary election. Taking
each argument in turn, the Court is unpersuaded.
“[A] party requesting a preliminary injunction must generally show reasonable diligence.”
Benisek v. Lamone, 585 U.S. ___, 138 S. Ct. 1942, 1944 (2018). The Court acknowledges that
the Plaintiffs’ decision to file this case and the accompanying preliminary injunction motion when
they did increases the harm to the Defendants to some degree. The condensed timeline for
formulating and implementing relatively new procedures for the impending primary election is
less than ideal. Still, the Court does not find that a lack of diligence, if any exists, bars injunctive
relief here. Auditor Nelson highlights a March 2019 email from the Barnes County Auditor to the
Plaintiffs’ counsel that demonstrated an awareness of the omission of notice and cure procedures
from the signature-matching requirement. See Doc. No. 11-12. While that email may show
knowledge of the potential claim itself, it is not indicative of a failure to timely pursue injunctive
Case 3:20-cv-00071-PDW-ARS Document 29 Filed 06/03/20 Page 21 of 22
relief. At oral argument, the Plaintiffs’ counsel indicated that the decision to seek a preliminary
injunction arose when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the June primary to transform into an
exclusively vote-by-mail election, inflating the importance of the signature-matching requirement.
Governor Burgum issued the order suspending the in-person polling place requirement on March
26, 2020, and the Plaintiffs’ filed their complaint 36 days later on May 1, 2020. See Doc. Nos. 1,
11-21. This motion followed ten days later. See Doc. No. 11. In these circumstances, the Court
cannot say the Plaintiffs lacked diligence in pursuing injunctive relief.
Likewise, the Court is not convinced that the Plaintiffs’ requested injunctive relief runs
afoul of the admonition “that lower federal courts should ordinarily not alter the election rules on
the eve of an election.” Republican Nat’l Comm. v. Democratic Nat’l Comm., 589 U.S. ___, 140
S. Ct. 1205, 1207 (2020). That admonition derives from Purcell v. Gonzalez, 549 U.S. 1 (2006),
a case addressing Arizona’s voter identification laws. There, the Supreme Court held that federal
courts must weigh “considerations specific to election cases” when deciding whether to enjoin an
election law in close temporal proximity to an election. Id. at 4. Immediately following that
holding, the opinion explained, “Court orders affecting elections . . . can themselves result in voter
confusion and consequent incentive to remain away from the polls. As an election draws closer,
that risk will increase.” Id. The concerns that troubled the Supreme Court in Purcell are not
present in this instance. A voter filling out an absentee ballot will be entirely unaffected by an
order enjoining the signature-matching requirement—a requirement that applies only after a ballot
is submitted. In other words, there is no potential for voter confusion or dissuasion from voting
because the process for submitting an absentee ballot will remain unchanged. To the extent the
impact on election officials alone is relevant under Purcell, the Court has previously weighed that
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impact and found the countervailing threat of the deprivation of the fundamental right to vote more
The Plaintiffs have established that the balance of harms and public interest factors favor
a preliminary injunction. As a final note, the Court deems statewide relief the appropriate course
of action because the two challenged statutes are likely facially unconstitutional in the absence of
adequate notice and cure procedures. Cf. Brakebill v. Jaeger, 932 F.3d 671, 678 (8th Cir. 2018).
The Court has reviewed the record, the parties’ filings, and the relevant legal authority.
The Plaintiffs have met the burden to demonstrate the necessity of a preliminary injunction. For
the reasons above, the Plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction (Doc. No. 11) is GRANTED.
The Court ORDERS as follows:
(1) The Secretary, Auditor Nelson, and all North Dakota election officials acting in
concert with them are hereby enjoined from rejecting any mail-in ballot on the basis
of a signature mismatch absent adequate notice and cure procedures for the June 9,
2020 primary election. In the event this matter has not been finally resolved on the
merits prior to the November 3, 2020 general election, the Plaintiffs may apply for
additional injunctive relief.
(2) The parties shall confer and submit to the Court no later than 12:00 P.M. on
Friday, June 5, 2020 proposed procedures to be implemented by county auditors
that afford affected voters notice when a ballot is identified as containing a
signature mismatch, as well as an opportunity for affected voters to verify their
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Dated this 3rd day of June, 2020.
/s/ Peter D. Welte
Peter D. Welte, Chief Judge
United States District Court
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