Minneapolis residents will decide the future of policing for the first time since George Floyd's death after the Minnesota Supreme Court cleared the way Thursday for their votes to be counted.
The decision — hours before the start of early voting — appeared to bring an end to a legal saga that dogged the city for more than a month and cleared the stage for campaigns to refocus their efforts on persuading residents to vote in a race that is drawing national attention.
"We're incredibly thrilled that the people of Minneapolis have their democracy honored," said JaNaé Bates, a spokeswoman for Yes 4 Minneapolis, which wrote the proposal. "The Supreme Court recognized that we were on the right side of the law, we were on the right side of democracy, and we're going to be [on] the right side of history as we move forward."
The city is on track to have a historic election as impassioned residents debate whether they want to replace the Police Department with a new public safety agency. Spending is surpassing anything in recent memory as the policing question dominates debate not only into the races for mayor and City Council, but begins to reverberate into next year's state and federal elections as well. Just moments after the court's ruling came down, opponents released their first ad.
It's the first of what are likely to be a flood of ads, mailers and other messages attempting to sway people as they debate how to transform public safety and how many, if any, officers the city should employ.
Earlier this year, the political committee Yes 4 Minneapolis gathered signatures to place the policing question on the ballot. The measure changes the Minneapolis charter by removing the requirement to keep a police department with a minimum number of officers. It then requires the city to create a new agency providing "a comprehensive public health approach to safety."
After city officials confirmed the petitions met the requirements, elected leaders were tasked with crafting a question to present it to voters in a neutral way.
Over seven weeks, the city faced three lawsuits over the wording it chose. Each time it was tossed out, elected officials revised the wording. The cases quickly entered uncharted territory and became increasingly frenzied as the beginning of early voting grew closer.
"A case with this many motions, and this many ups and downs usually takes 12 months. There's little time in the course of this to feel exhilaration when we won or disappointment when we lost, because there was always more to do," said Terrance W. Moore, an attorney for Yes 4 Minneapolis. "We felt it was important to be resilient and follow the course of the law and the course of the process and, ugly as it was, the process worked."
Earlier this week, it looked like residents' votes on the issue might not count. Three residents — former council member Don Samuels, nonprofit CEO Sondra Samuels and businessman Bruce Dachis — had urged the courts to block officials from using the latest ballot language, saying it failed to adequately inform voters of the proposal's consequences.
Hennepin County Judge Jamie Anderson sided with them, calling the wording "unreasonable and misleading." She blocked officials from counting votes on the issue.
That ruling triggered a flurry of appeals to the Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday, placing pressure on justices to act with unusual speed. Shortly before 6 p.m. Thursday, they overturned Anderson's ruling, permitting officials to count people's votes on the issue.
In a three-page document, Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea wrote that the legal challenge to the ballot question "does not meet the high standard" for preventing a vote on it. She said the court will issue a full opinion outlining how it reached that conclusion in the future but wanted to act quickly "so as not to impair the orderly process of voting."
The order didn't list any dissent. Justice Margaret Chutich recused herself from the decision. Kyle Christopherson, a spokesman for the court, said "the reason for recusals are never revealed."
Shortly after the ruling came down, Don Samuels said he still believes the ballot question is vague but that the trio who brought the lawsuit "achieved significant improvement" throughout the court process.
"This is certainly better than it not going on at all," said Samuels. "At the end of the day, this was not an attempt to keep the question off the ballot; it was to enlighten the voters by forcing the City Council to clean up the language and be honest about what it will do."
Now, he said that he, his wife Sondra, Dachis and other opponents of the amendment will work to get out the word to voters about their concerns on the measure.
"We certainly have spent a lot of energy and gotten a lot of attention to the issue of the language, which becomes a cautionary note to all the voters, or many more voters than there would have been if we had not done that," he said.
Right after the decision, All of Mpls, a political committee that opposes the measure, released its first ad. The 29-second video urges people to vote against the proposal, calling it "a dangerous experiment with no plan."
Yes 4 Minneapolis sees the proposal as an effort "to expand public safety with a department that uses a comprehensive public-health approach." Their supporters are also ramping up efforts in the run-up to the election.
The campaign, they had argued, was the appropriate place to debate the measure's merits. Moore, the group's attorney, said people "can review the question, but should also listen to the campaigns, and think critically, and don't accept hyperbole without examining."
Staff writers Susan Du and Kelly Smith contributed to this report.