A judge is expected to decide within a week whether St. Paul City Council Member Dai Thao is innocent or guilty of misdemeanors for helping a woman vote last year while he was a candidate for mayor.
The prosecution and Thao's attorney agreed Wednesday morning to allow Ramsey County District Court Judge Nicole Starr to rule in a criminal case that accuses Thao of breaking state law.
Starr issued an order last week that weighed in Thao's favor, finding that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 pre-empts Minnesota law regulating a candidate's actions at polling stations, and that Thao's actions were permissible under federal law.
Thao, 43, was charged in February with 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 in a polling place.
Chief Deputy Dakota County Attorney Phil Prokopowicz, who is prosecuting the case to avoid a conflict of interest in Ramsey County, had initially asked Starr not to decide Thao's innocence or guilt until he could review her decision. Although Prokopowicz reserved his right to ask the Minnesota Court of Appeals to review Starr's decision regarding the federal law, he said Wednesday that allowing her to decide innocence or guilt was the best route.
"Just for efficiency's purpose, that's all," Prokopowicz said after the hearing.
The move was also endorsed by Thao's attorney, Joe Dixon. Thao waived his right to appear at Wednesday's hearing and was not present.
Both attorneys could potentially appeal Starr's decision on Thao's culpability, although neither would say Wednesday how they would react.
Starr said she intended to issue a ruling on Thao's innocence or guilt within seven days.
The judge wrote in her decision last week that state and federal voting laws clashed on Nov. 6 when Thao drove a 63-year-old Hmong woman to an early voting site. Thao, who is Hmong, interpreted for her, helped her register to vote and marked her choices on the ballot.
Thao was running for mayor of St. Paul at the time; he lost to Melvin Carter.
"Here, without the candidate's assistance the voter would have been unable to vote because she only spoke Hmong," Starr wrote. "Though the record indicated that the voter was under some time constraints as she was leaving on international travel … even if she did not have these time constraints, the position that the voter could wait for an undetermined amount of time until an interpreter arrived is an unacceptable barrier."
There were no other Hmong speakers at the voting site, the Martin Luther King Recreation Center, at the time.