Minnesota voters who need help casting their ballot will be able to choose someone to help them — including a candidate for office — after a judge ruled that the U.S. Constitution and federal law override a state law that made such assistance illegal.
In an order filed Tuesday, Ramsey County Judge Thomas Gilligan said the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office must post signs at polling places explaining that voters who have a disability or are unable to read or write can choose someone to help them cast their ballot. Voters will not be allowed to seek help from their employer or a representative of their union.
“The Voting Rights Act expressly pre-empts any state law that imposes restrictions that conflict with and are contrary to its protections,” Gilligan wrote. “Minnesota does not have the authority to enforce a criminal law that is pre-empted by the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution.”
According to a release from the Minnesota ACLU, Secretary of State Steve Simon “agreed that the restrictions are pre-empted and, therefore, unenforceable.”
The outcome vindicates St. Paul City Council Member Dai Thao, who faced criminal charges after helping a woman vote in 2017 when he was running for mayor.
Ramsey County District Court Judge Nicole Starr issued an order in Thao’s case in October 2018 finding the Voting Rights Act pre-empts state law, and issued a decision the next month stating he was not guilty of the criminal charges filed against him.
Thao was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit, filed by the Minnesota ACLU in February, alleging that state statute violated the Voting Rights Act and both the state and federal constitutions by making it a criminal offense for candidates to assist voters or for individuals to assist more than three voters.
“Voting is a fundamental right in our democracy, and a state law that made it harder for people with disabilities or language barriers to vote could not stand,” Minnesota ACLU staff attorney David McKinney said in a statement. “This order is a recognition that Minnesotans should be able to get any assistance they need with voting.”
Other plaintiffs in the suit, which named Simon in his official capacity, were Thao’s wife, Amee Xiong; Council Member Nelsie Yang; and community organizer Chong Lee.
Simon, Minnesota Solicitor General Liz Kramer and an attorney for the plaintiffs signed a consent decree March 20.
At a state House committee hearing last year, Simon testified in support of a bill that would eliminate the legal limit on the number of voters one person can assist, saying that the existing statute was likely to be struck down in court.
In an interview Thursday, Thao called the outcome “a great win for democracy” and said the next step is educating voters about the change.
“I think I’ve just been really blessed to be in a position to fight this issue,” Thao said. “I’m just very blessed that the Lord has chosen me to take that fight on, and we won.”