MOORHEAD — A judge on Monday, Dec. 14, dismissed with prejudice a lawsuit contesting the Nov. 3 election and the race for Minnesota House District 4A, stating in his ruling that negating pre-election rule suspensions that were made in light of the coronavirus pandemic would disenfranchise voters of Clay County.

Minnesota District Court Judge Timothy Churchwell also said in his order filed in Clay County District Court that because of "substantive and procedural deficiencies" the suit could not proceed on jurisdictional grounds.

The lawsuit was filed Nov. 30 by several "contestants," including Edwin Hahn, a Republican from Moorhead who lost the race for the Minnesota House District 4A seat to Democrat Heather Keeler.

Keeler received roughly 57% of the vote to Hahn's 42%, with approximately 18,436 votes cast, meaning Keeler defeated Hahn by about 2,700 votes.

Besides Keeler, other "contestees" named in the suit included Clay County Auditor and Treasurer Lori Johnson and Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon.

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During a hearing last week via Zoom, attorneys for Johnson, Simon and Keeler said the suit should be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction and Keeler's attorney also asserted the case should be dismissed for "failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted."

Hahn said during the hearing that the contestants were seeking "a full forensic audit" of the Nov. 3 election, arguing that election officials changed the normal election process in a number of ways that he and others said resulted in a lack of transparency that cast doubt on the election's integrity and outcome.

Heather Keeler
Heather Keeler

Hahn and other contestants cited a number of "irregularities" in the November election, including a change from past practices that allowed absentee ballots to be cast without witness signatures and the use of county staff instead of bipartisan election judges to handle certain aspects of the vote count.

Clay County Attorney Brian Melton, who represented Johnson, stated during the hearing that the election was conducted in a fair and efficient manner and that there was no evidence fraud or error was a factor in the outcome.

Attorney Charles Nauen, who represented Keeler at last week's hearing, said Keeler should be removed from the suit because she was never properly served with papers.

Nauen also said the suit should be dismissed outright because it did not meet filing deadlines.

Nauen described Keeler's victory as a "landslide," adding that the 2,700-vote difference was impossible to overcome using an election challenge.

In his order, Judge Churchwell noted that Hahn and the other contestants were not seeking to overturn the election, but instead were seeking a forensic accounting of every ballot and absentee ballot application to discern whether the voter was eligible to vote, as well as the validity of each vote cast in order to determine the true outcome of the election.

"On these bases," Churchwell said, "the court concludes the contestants failed to plead the vote totals were inaccurate and resulted in the wrong candidate being declared the winner, which is an essential legal predicate to sustain an election contest."

In a written statement issued Monday, Keeler said it was an honor to be elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives and said she was glad to see the Minnesota courts reaffirm the election.

"This is not a victory for me, but for our community and the values of democracy, participation, and inclusion that we all cherish," Keeler added. "No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, I am confident that the voters of District 4A recognize that we all deserve to have our voices heard and our votes counted."

Keeler also said that now that the lawsuit has been decided, "It is time for us all to set this manufactured controversy aside, abide by the will of Minnesota voters, and begin tackling the important matters facing our state."

Minnesota House District 4A includes the city of Moorhead and Oakport Township.

Attempts to reach Hahn for comment Monday were not successful.