In the case against St. Paul City Council Member Dai Thao, the prosecution and the defense agree: On Nov. 6, Thao, who was running for mayor, helped a woman vote because she needed an interpreter and had trouble seeing the ballot.
What the two sides don’t agree on is whether it matters that Thao didn’t know what he did was illegal.
“There’s really no dispute about the facts in this case,” defense attorney Joe Dixon told Ramsey County Judge Nicole Starr during a pretrial hearing Monday morning. “There’s, of course, more to it.”
Thao, 43, faces three misdemeanor counts of unlawfully marking a ballot, misconduct in and near polling places and unlawfully assisting a voter. Minnesota law prohibits candidates for office from assisting voters.
Dixon filed a motion in June arguing that Thao should be acquitted or the case against him dismissed. He argued that prosecutors failed to prove Thao knowingly broke the state law that prohibits candidates from assisting voters. The motion also argued that Thao’s conduct is protected by the federal Voting Rights Act, which allows voters to choose anyone to help them vote.
On Monday, Dixon reiterated the barriers that the 63-year-old Hmong woman faced in attempting to vote — primarily, the lack of a Hmong interpreter on site.
“The hurdles had been put in place to dissuade her — to prevent her — from voting,” Dixon said.
Meanwhile, Dixon said, election judges did not tell Thao that he wasn’t allowed to help the woman vote until after he’d done it.
Thao was charged in Ramsey County District Court, but the Dakota County Attorney’s Office is prosecuting the case to avoid a conflict of interest.
On Monday, prosecutor Phil Prokopowicz repeated his argument from a July motion that Thao’s ignorance of Minnesota law does not shield him from prosecution.
Prokopowicz also said that although a Hmong interpreter wasn’t at the polling place when the woman came to vote, one could have been provided.
“It wasn’t that she wouldn’t be able to vote,” he said. “There would have been a slight delay.”
Dixon countered that there’s no evidence the woman actually would have been able to vote, or an explanation for how she could have communicated the need for an interpreter.
“She would be left in the dark,” he said.
Starr took the matter under advisement Monday, and said she will issue an order as soon as possible.