ST. PAUL — Minnesota voters will be asked to cast their ballots by mail in the upcoming election as state officials prepare to manage what they've called a "public health challenge" amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon on Thursday, Sept. 17, announced that he had mailed out letters to 2.3 million registered voters in the state who'd not yet submitted requests to vote absentee and encouraged them to vote from home during the pandemic.

More than a million Minnesotans had sent in requests to vote absentee as of Friday morning, Sept. 18. That included some mail-only precincts. And to avoid a crush of applications closer to Election Day, Simon said he wanted to get the letters and paper applications out early. He said his office had used federal CARES Act funds to print and distribute the letters.

The letters were set to arrive in mailboxes around the state as voting kicks off Sept. 18 ahead of the Nov. 3 election and as presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Joe Biden were set to touch down in Minnesota for campaign events in Bemidji and Duluth, respectively.

“In a normal year, the appeal of voting from home is comfort and convenience. But this year, it’s also a public service because every person who votes from home is making the polling place a little bit safer for voters who need or prefer to vote in person," Simon said in a news release. "This mailing is all about making sure Minnesota voters know that voting from home is easy, safe, and secure.”

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The state opted to send the letters and absentee ballot applications after the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and the NAACP sued Simon's office. The organizations and others argued that voters should have options to keep them out of harm's way during the pandemic. The state also dropped a requirement that those voting absentee have a witness signature under the same lawsuit.

“This agreement is a major victory for Minnesotans because it ensures that all voters now have access to absentee voting, even those without internet service, which is nearly a quarter of the population," Theresa Lee, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, said in a news release. "Minnesotans will no longer have to choose between their health and their vote."

The move drew frustration from Republicans who opposed Democrats' efforts earlier in the year to move to a full vote-by-mail structure during the pandemic and said absentee balloting by mail still leaves the potential for voter fraud.

"Because the Democrats failed in their quest of universal all vote by mail, now they are using the SOS office to try and game the system," Minnesota GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan said. "We believe and encourage all eligible voters to participate in our elections, either in-person or via absentee."

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com