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Can Polling Places Mandate Masks?

Line of people voting
By Ashley Ravid on August 10, 2020 10:49 AM

Across the country, state and local officials have found their powers tested by those pushing back against their emergency COVID-19 orders and actions. Because this pandemic happens to fall during an election year, many are wondering whether orders to wear masks will apply to polling places, and if this mandate is nationally enforceable. Who is in the right legally, and will voters nationwide be required to wear masks at the polls?

State Statutes and Executive Orders

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz's COVID-19 restrictions have already been challenged by several lawsuits, with the latest concerning his recent executive order to require masks to be worn indoors statewide. With the state's primary election on August 11, the Minnesota Voters Alliance has filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the executive order, citing its conflict with a state statute that prevents citizens from concealing their identity in public with a mask.

The Minnesota law in question is from 1963 and states that, "A person whose identity is concealed by the person in a public place by means of a robe, mask, or other disguise, unless based on religious beliefs, or incidental to amusement, entertainment, protection from weather, or medical treatment, is guilty of a misdemeanor."

Laws and executive orders on masks vary between states, so make sure you stay up to date on the safety measures required in your area.

The Voters Alliance, which is backed by several GOP lawmakers, alleges that Walz's executive order is illegal and unconstitutional, despite the state statute's exception for "medical reasons." Though the exact interpretation of this phrase is up to a judge's discretion, it seems likely that preventing the spread of COVID-19, a highly dangerous and contagious virus, would be included under the exceptions for wearing a mask.

Teddy Tschann, a spokesperson for Walz, has stated that compliance with the mask mandate would not violate the 1963 law because the order is specifically in relation to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. According to Star Tribune, Tschann also noted that "emergency executive orders historically supersede regular state statutes."

This precedent makes a victory for the Minnesota Voters Alliance seem unlikely in this case, though it is possible that a judge may grant a temporary injunction on Walz's order before the primary on Tuesday.

Primary

Over 500,000 Minnesota residents have requested to vote by mail for the 2020 primary, a figure around ten times higher than in the 2018 primary. Voters will have to have their ballots postmarked on or before Tuesday in order for them to be counted.

Despite the concerns of the Voters Alliance, officials have stated that the constitutional right to vote will not be impeded by a citizen not wearing a mask. This means that you can vote at the polls without wearing a mask. The Voters Alliance alleges that some poll workers have been directed to write down the names of citizens who vote without wearing masks and that these people may later face fines or other penalties for violating the mask order. Whether there is truth to this claim or not remains to be seen.

It is important both to have your vote counted and to keep yourself and others safe as the pandemic continues. Regardless of where you live, online resources can aid you in finding a place to vote in-person or by absentee ballot.

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