ST. PAUL — State election officials urged voters to hand in absentee ballots or vote in-person rather than by mail following a federal judicial panel's decision Thursday, Oct. 29, requiring the state to put ballots that come in after Election Day in a separate category.

The decision doesn't prohibit the state from accepting the absentee ballots after 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3, but it could impact which votes get counted in the presidential election. Additional lawsuits could decide whether late ballots get treated differently than those submitted before the deadline.

And Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said voters shouldn't take any chances this close to the deadline.

RELATED: Late Minnesota absentee ballots must be separated, federal judges order

“Voters should no longer place their absentee ballots in the mail. Any Minnesota voter right now who ordered an absentee ballot to come to them by mail, it is too late for you practically speaking to get it back," Simon said. "Don’t risk it. Don’t put it in the mail."

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A three-member panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday ruled in support of a pair of Minnesota Republican electors who challenged the state's decision to accept absentee ballots postmarked on or before Nov. 3 for a week after Election Day.

Two judges of three argued that the extension violates state and federal election law and shouldn't be allowed to stand.

Simon said the state would not pursue legal action to stop the requirement that elections officials separate ballots ahead of Election Day but left open the option to sue later.

Here's what Minnesotans need to know about the decision and its impact on voting.

What did the panel say?

The three-judge panel on a 2-1 decision said Minnesota has to separate absentee ballots that come in by mail before 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3, or 3 p.m. for hand-delivered votes. They didn't strike down a seven-day extension to collect ballots set up to accommodate voters during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they said late arrivals should be segregated in case later court rulings determine they can't be counted.

A federal district court judge on Friday, Oct. 30, ordered the state to separate the ballots that come in late in case "a final order is entered by a court of competent jurisdiction determining such votes to be invalid or unlawfully counted."

What was the state planning before?

Secretary of State Steve Simon had previously reached a deal with political parties and various voting rights groups to collect absentee ballots for a week past that deadline if they were postmarked on or before Nov. 3. Voting rights groups had requested alterations to accommodate Minnesotans voting from home, possibly for the first time, amid the pandemic.

But a pair of Republican presidential electors challenged the extension in federal court, saying it broke with state and federal election laws that designate Nov. 3 as Election Day.

What does that mean for me as a voter?

Some of that depends on if you've already cast an absentee ballot by mail or in-person or if you have a plan in place to vote in the next four days.

Here is guidance from the secretary of state's office depending on a few situations:

  • If you voted in-person absentee already this won't affect you. You can check the state election website at mnvotes.org or the voter hotline (877-600-8683) to confirm your vote was accepted.
  • If you voted by mail awhile ago, your vote is likely already in and counted. You can check via mnvotes.org or the state voter hotline to confirm that your ballot made it into the state. Assuming it was legally cast and all went well, it will be accepted because it got in before Election Day.
  • If you mailed your absentee ballot recently and are worried about it getting to the polling place in time to be counted, you can go online or call the state voter hotline to see if your ballot has arrived. And if it has not, you can go to your polling place in-person to vote absentee. That will cancel your mailed ballot.
  • If you have an absentee ballot at home, state officials encourage dropping it off in-person at your early voting or ballot drop-off location. You can find that site using mnvotes.org. With the hard deadline to start separating ballots (and with a possibility that late ballots wouldn't count in the presidential contest), they say hand-delivering the absentee ballots on or before Nov. 3 is a more surefire option than mailing.
  • If you plan to vote in-person absentee or on Nov. 3, your plans should not be affected by the decision.

Simon on Friday said city and county polling locations would be open Saturday, Oct. 30, at least between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. and polling locations would maintain their hours on Friday, Monday and Tuesday. Every county is set to have in-person availability ahead of Election Day.

He also noted that absentee ballots can be accepted at city and county election offices until 3 p.m. on Nov. 3.

"Just because you have your ballot sent to you by mail does not mean you have to return it by mail. Every voter has always been free to hand-deliver that ballot to the place where it should go," Simon said.

How many absentee ballots are still out there?

According to the most recent numbers released by Simon's office, more than 1.58 million Minnesotans' absentee ballots have already been processed as of Friday, Oct. 30 — shattering absentee voting records of past years. But nearly 2 million Minnesotans have applied for absentee ballots and haven't returned them in time for processing yet.

That makes for nearly 389,000 voters with whom officials are pleading to drop off their ballots in-person, or vote in-person early or on Election Day.

Simon on Thursday encouraged those who still had the ballots to submit them in-person.

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