The Minnesota Court of Appeals sided Monday with a group seeking records on all voters in the state, ruling that under state law the information is public.
The decision sets up a likely state Supreme Court fight, extending a two-year legal battle between Secretary of State Steve Simon and the Minnesota Voters Alliance, which says it wants to evaluate potential voter fraud in Minnesota.
The case has played out against national efforts by the Trump administration and several Republican state attorneys general to prove widespread voter fraud by people living in the U.S. illegally. Those efforts have been largely inconclusive to date, and a national commission set up by President Donald Trump to investigate the 2016 presidential election was disbanded without finding evidence of large-scale fraud.
The Voters Alliance has been seeking access to data from the statewide voter registration system, which includes voters' names, addresses, phone numbers, birth years and voting history, as well as information about the types of ballots they cast and whether they were challenged. Simon countered that he would turn over much of the basic voter information but not the records on ballots and challenges to voters' status.
Monday's decision affirms a Ramsey County District Court ruling last year that the information contained within roughly 5.4 million individual voter records is public. That order, issued by District Judge Jennifer Frisch, was put on hold while Simon appealed the decision.
The Court of Appeals found that none of Simon's arguments "explicitly state that the requested data are not public." Also at issue is a provision in the state's government data practices law holding that the secretary of state "may" provide certain voter information in the registration system "if requested for permissible purpose."
Simon's office argued that the law granted the secretary of state discretion to decide whether or not to disclose certain information. Writing for the court, Judge Renee Worke concluded that the Voters Alliance pursuit of the records for "political activities" is a permissible purpose.
"We are not persuaded," Worke wrote of Simon's claimed discretion. "If the secretary of state has unfettered discretion to disclose the contested data, which we need not decide, it would be nonsensical to conclude that the legislature has classified that data on individuals as private or confidential data."
Simon said Monday that his office will review the Court of Appeals opinion "in anticipation of filing a petition for further review before the Minnesota Supreme Court."
"Minnesota law makes voting as easy as possible for eligible voters, while simultaneously protecting the privacy rights of voters," Simon said. "When those rights are under attack, I will use all legal means to protect the private information of Minnesota voters."
Erick Kaardal, an attorney representing the Voters Alliance, said the group wants to study how often ineligible voting takes place in Minnesota — something Simon's office has insisted is not a widespread occurrence.
Last year the Office of the Legislative Auditor counted 69 investigations over two years by county attorneys' offices in Minnesota that suggested ineligible people had either voted or registered to vote. The audit also found that county attorneys won 47 convictions over a five-year period from 2012 to 2017 for cases involving ineligible voting, or fewer than 10 convictions each year.
But the Voters Alliance suggested that more data is needed.
"This is a victory basically for the election system," Kaardal said of Monday's court ruling. "The public wants to have information … so we know what's going on with the voting system so we can make it better."
The group's critics contend that the focus on alleged voter fraud masks an effort to intimidate would-be voters and suppress turnout. In his statement Monday, Simon cast his legal defense as "standing firm against those who call into question or seek to suppress the votes of thousands of eligible voters."
The legal fight, however, has been more narrowly drawn on the issue of transparency.
On Monday, the court acknowledged that the state could argue that lawmakers did not intend for the bulk of the voter database to be accessible to the public. But, Worke wrote, the Legislature "has not expressly stated that the data in the [statewide voter registration system] is not public."
"The secretary of state may not assume a function of our legislature and classify data as not public when the legislature has not made that determination," Worke wrote.
The Voters Alliance has challenged a number of state election practices, and it scored a major victory last year when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Minnesota law barring people from wearing political clothing to the polls.
The group describes itself as a nonpartisan political organization but makes legal claims of widespread voter fraud that align with similar assertions from Republican-leaning groups. Simon is a Democrat.