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Translating the ballot for an elderly Hmong neighbor landed St. Paul City Council member Dai Thao in court because candidates aren’t supposed to assist voters at polling places. He was acquitted after a bench trial. (File photo: Kevin Featherly)
Translating the ballot for an elderly Hmong neighbor landed St. Paul City Council member Dai Thao in court because candidates aren’t supposed to assist voters at polling places. He was acquitted after a bench trial. (File photo: Kevin Featherly)

Bar Buzz: Parts of voting law unenforceable

The case of a St. Paul mayoral candidate charged for helping an elderly woman vote has led to a change in the state’s voting law.

Secretary of State Steve Simon and Attorney General Keith Ellison have signed off on a consent decree ordering the state to cease enforcing two statutory restrictions on assisting voters in the polling place.

In joint press press release Tuesday, the officials characterized the agreement as an expansion of voting access.

“No state may impose restrictions on that freedom that conflict with the Voting Rights Act—yet Minnesota law codified these restrictions for years and the Legislature did not lift them,” Ellison is quoted as saying.

“I’m pleased that this arbitrary, invalid limitation is no longer part of Minnesota’s elections,” Simon said in the same press statement.

The case involves St. Paul’s Ward 1 City Council member Dai Thao, who was criminally charged in 2017 after helping an elderly Hmong woman fill out her ballot. The woman had vision problems and needed help with translation.

“She asked for my help and I helped her,” Thao told Minnesota Lawyer in 2018, shortly after Ramsey County District Court Judge Nicole J. Starr acquitted him based on stipulated facts.

Thao said he had helped the voter in full view of polling place elections judges and they did not object to his conduct. He said he did not know he was breaking any laws.

While the state’s voting law has allowed voters to choose a trusted person to help them cast their ballot, political candidates were exempted. At the time, Thao was running for St. Paul mayor.

After his acquittal, ACLU of Minnesota sued the Secretary of State on Thao’s behalf. Community organizers Amee Xiong, Nelsie Yang—now a St. Paul City Councilmember—and Chong Lee—a community member who needed help voting—also were listed as plaintiffs.

“Helping a voter who has difficulty seeing or translating a ballot should not be a crime,” the civil rights group said in an online statement celebrating the agreement.

The officials’ consent decree settles that suit. Signed by Ramsey County District Court Judge Thomas A. Gilligan, Jr., it permanently enjoins Simon from enforcing two provisions in Minnesota’s election law.

First, Simon cannot stop anyone from assisting more than three voters in an election. Second, the order does away with the rule prohibiting a political candidate from assisting a voter.

In its conclusions of law, the decree says Minn. Stat. Sec. 204C.15, sub. 1 conflicts with the federal Voting Rights Act. The Minnesota statute prohibits conduct expressly allowed under the federal law, which recognize neither the candidate restriction nor the three-person limit, the decree says.

That creates an obstacle to the federal law’s objectives, the decree states, violating the U.S. Constitution’s supremacy clause.

The April 21 agreement orders the secretary, within 30 days, to inform all Minnesota county attorneys and election officials of the provisions’ unenforceability. Simon’s office must also change election-judge training materials to reflect the agreement and arrange for foreign-language signs to be posted at polling places with notice of the changes.

Simon also was ordered to ask the Attorney General’s Office for an opinion concluding that the restrictions at issue in the case violate the federal Voting Rights Act.

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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