Minneapolis and St. Paul cannot force landlords to give new tenants city-approved documents instructing them how to register to vote, a federal judge ruled Monday.

U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright ruled that the requirements, passed as part of an effort to boost voter registration, violate the landlords' First Amendment rights because they compel them to convey the cities' messages.

Minneapolis enacted an ordinance in 2016 requiring landlords to provide voter registration information "in a manner approved by the city" to tenants who are 18 or older, as a condition for keeping their rental licenses.

Two years later, the city of St. Paul passed a similar measure requiring landlords to give tenants who are old enough to vote "registration information identified by the city clerk."

Both cities said they hoped the requirements would help reduce disparities in voter turnout, noting that homeowners tend to vote at a higher rate than renters.

The nonpartisan Minnesota Voters Alliance and several of its landlord members filed a suit in 2019 seeking to have the ordinances struck down on the grounds that they violated the landlords' right not to speak.

While the judge called the cities' efforts to increase voter turnout "laudable," she also noted that voter registration information "in no way relates to the products or services that landlords provide."

Wright said the cities did not sufficiently explain why they couldn't increase voter turnout through other means, such as delivering brochures to apartment buildings or mailing information directly to renters.

Erick Kaardal, an attorney for the alliance, said Tuesday that members were pleased with the judge's ruling. The cities "have to do better than this by their landlords," he said. "It's embarrassing."

Kaardal said his clients agree that it is important to increase voter turnout but don't feel that they should be required to pass along the cities' messages.

"When the government can speak directly to voters to get them to register, then we don't need the government compelling other people to speak to those people to register," Kaardal said. "When the government can speak directly to those people, the government should."

It's unclear whether Minneapolis landlords have been cited for violating the ordinance.

Peter Leggett, a spokesman for St. Paul, said the city has taken "no enforcement actions." Leggett said that it was "premature" to decide if they will fight the decision.

Minneapolis is "evaluating options for an appeal," spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie said Tuesday.

Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994