As an appellate court ruling threw Minnesota’s election into last-minute chaos, election officials have lost a critical tool to alert voters to stop mailing in ballots: Facebook advertising.
That’s because the social media site, in an attempt to stop the spread of misinformation, announced last month they would halt the creation of new political ads in the week leading up to the election, a restriction that has blocked both election officials and campaigns from providing updates to voters following a flurry of election litigation and often confusing court rulings.
Throughout October, the Minnesota Secretary of State has used Facebook advertisements to reach voters in a nonpartisan public information campaign, promoting voting-by-mail in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The ads had been seen over half a million times, according to Facebook data.
A state court decision earlier this year allowed Minnesotans’ mail-in ballots received up to a week after Election Day to be counted, so long as they were postmarked by Election Day. Following a legal challenge from Minnesota Republican electors, however, the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Thursday — just five days before the election — that ballots received after Minnesota’s polls close must be ‘segregated,’ signaling that it’s likely they could be invalidated.
Election officials will still count those ballots for now, but a later court ruling could mean that delays in the mail might result in Minnesotans’ votes being thrown out if those ballots aren’t received by the time polls close. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported Friday that “Absentee ballots are taking longer to reach election offices in key swing states than in the rest of the country.”
“Better to put those voters on notice now while they still have at least some time to adjust their plans and cast their votes in an unquestionably lawful way,” the ruling read.
“At this point it is just too risky,” said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon in a press conference on Friday. “So our advice is: do not put an absentee ballot in the mail right now.”
The ruling creates a substantial and last-minute change to Minnesota’s election, contradicting instructions included within ballot envelopes that are still arriving in Minnesotans’ mailboxes.
Simon said resources are being redirected to inform the public of “the options available to voters now to make sure that they can have their ballot count.”
On Friday morning, Simon’s office turned off Facebook advertisements for their multilingual “Vote from Home” campaign, which pictured voters at their home and placing their ballots in a mailbox. The office also placed a message on its website: “If you have a ballot, DO NOT mail it in!”
But due to Facebook’s new policy aimed at curbing the spread of misinformation, the week-long pre-election blackout period on new political advertising means that both campaigns and election officials have lost a vital tool for keeping voters informed.
“In the final days of an election there may not be enough time to contest new claims,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said while announcing the blackout period last month, citing the move as helping to protect democracy and voters.
Jake Spano, Simon’s deputy, said on Friday that Facebook has not agreed to waive the blackout window for Minnesota election officials following yesterday’s 8th Circuit ruling.
“But we are talking to them about running new information in what they call their ‘Voting Information Center,’ and also we’re talking to them about blasting out a ‘top of feed’ message that would go to everyone in Minnesota about the change,” Spano added.
As of Friday afternoon, Facebook’s Voting Information Center was still advising Minnesotans to return their ballots via postal mail “soon”—putting those ballots in risk of not arriving on time.
“At this point, Facebook is promoting false information,” said Nick Harper, civic engagement director for the League of Women Voters of Minnesota.
“Technology companies are not equipped to do this work, and they are implementing policies that have the facade of being good for elections, but when push comes to shove, it’s actually doing voters harm,” Harper said.
In Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District, Republican Tyler Kistner is challenging U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, a Democrat. After the death of Legal Marijuana Now party candidate Adam Weeks pushed the election back to early next year and created uncertainty for voters, the decision was reversed by a judge. Just yesterday, a new lawsuit was filed related to the race.
Kistner’s spokesperson Billy Grant said their campaign knew Facebook’s political advertising deadline was coming, so they prepared their ads two days in advance.
“While I understand what their intentions were with cutting down on misinformation, this is probably an unintended consequence where they didn’t realize there could be last-minute court decisions where people need to get different information out,” Grant said. “Looking back, this might be something they rethink in the future.”
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
At a press conference Friday, Simon laid out the options Minnesota voters have to make sure their vote counts: If Minnesotans have already submitted their absentee mail-in ballot, they can check to make sure it’s been received and accepted at MNVotes.org.
If a ballot has been returned by mail but hasn’t been marked as received, “You can override that in-transit vote,” Simon said. Minnesotans can vote early throughout the weekend, on Monday, or at their polling place on Election Day.
Voters who received an absentee mail-in ballot but haven’t returned it should return it in-person.
“Just because you get your ballot sent to you by mail does not mean you have to return it by mail,” Simon said. Those ballots can be hand-delivered to the voter’s local election office or ballot return site, or can be delivered to the voter’s local polling place on Election Day until 3 p.m.