AG Ellison, SOS Simon reach agreement to expand access to voting
Consent degree in Thao v. Simon means Minnesota may no longer enforce certain restrictions on assisting voters; will especially aid voters with language barriers and disabilities
April 29, 2020
April 28, 2020 (SAINT PAUL) —Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison have reached an agreement with plaintiffs in court to expand Minnesotans’ access to voting. In a consent decree in Thao v. Simon that has been filed in Ramsey County District Court, Secretary Simon, represented by Attorney General Ellison’s office, agrees that two provisions of Minnesota elections law — one of which prohibits any person from assisting more than three voters in an election — are preempted by the federal Voting Rights Act and are unenforceable.
The Voting Rights Act is clear that a voter may ask the person of their choice, with limited exceptions, for help with voting. Minnesota’s law imposed additional restrictions on that choice. As the consent decree states, “The Voting Rights Act expressly preempts any state law that imposes restrictions that conflict with and are contrary to its provisions. Minnesota does not have the authority to enforce a criminal law that is preempted by the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution.”
“My mission in this office is to make it as easy as possible for every eligible Minnesotan to vote,” Secretary Simon said. “That means making sure that voters have the freedom to choose who helps them in the polling place. I’m pleased that this arbitrary, invalid limitation is no longer part of Minnesota’s elections.”
“The freedom to vote is fundamental to every citizen’s ability to live with dignity and respect,” Attorney General Ellison said. “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. Secretary Simon and I entered into this consent decree because we agree with the plaintiffs that the restrictions are invalid and unenforceable. Taking them off the books means that every eligible Minnesotan, regardless of language or ability, now has greater access to the fundamental freedom to vote.”
The other restriction invalidated by the consent decree prohibits a candidate for office from assisting a voter. Saint Paul City Council Member Dai Thao faced criminal charges in 2017, when he was a candidate for mayor of Saint Paul, after assisting an elderly Hmong voter at the polls who needed help seeing and translating her ballot. Those charges were later dismissed. The ACLU sued Secretary Simon on behalf of Council Member Thao; community organizers Amee Xiong and Nelsie Yang, now also a Saint Paul City Council member; and Chong Lee, a community member who had needed help voting.
When he served as a state representative, Secretary Simon carried a bill to eliminate these restrictions, but the Legislature did not act on it. Minnesota and Arkansas were the only two states in the nation that carried these restrictions on the books. In 2017, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals similarly invalidated a restriction in Texas election law that required interpreters at the polls to be registered to vote in the county in which they were assisting voters. The Fifth Circuit held that that restriction was also preempted by the Voting Right Act.
Under the conditions of the consent decree, Secretary Simon will notify all elections officials and county attorneys in Minnesota that the restrictions are now unenforceable, remove all references to them in training materials for election judges, and post appropriate signage in multiple languages at the polls. The decree also stipulates that Attorney General Ellison will issue a formal opinion that the restrictions are preempted by the Voting Rights Act.