St. Paul City Council Member Dai Thao acted legally when he helped a woman vote in an election last year in which he was a mayoral candidate, a judge ruled late Friday.

Ramsey County District Court Nicole Starr issued a decision stating that Thao was not guilty of any of the criminal charges filed against him.

"At every step of the voting process, Defendant was open and transparent about his aid to a non-English speaking voter," Starr wrote. "He encountered several election judges, who actively worked with him to ensure that the non-English speaking voter understood the process and was able to cast her vote."

Chief Deputy Dakota County Attorney Phil Prokopowicz, who is prosecuting the case to avoid a conflict of interest in Ramsey County, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Prokopowicz said last month that he would have to review Starr's decision before deciding what steps he might take.

"I'm very grateful," Thao said in an interview. "We need to do more to help enable people with disabilities and language barriers to exercise their constitutional right" to vote.

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.

Thao drove a 63-year-old Hmong-American woman to an early voting site. Thao, who is Hmong-American, interpreted for her, helped her register to vote and marked her choices on the ballot. Thao was running for St. Paul mayor at time, but lost to Melvin Carter.

Asked if he helped anyone vote during Tuesday's midterm elections, Thao ended the interview by saying, "I don't have anything else to say."

Both sides agreed late last month to allow Starr to take the question of Thao's guilt under review.

The case started tilting in Thao's favor when Starr issued an earlier order 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.

The polling place had no Hmong interpreters available, and it was unacceptable to expect that the woman should wait for an interpreter when Thao was able to assist her, Starr wrote.

In her Friday decision, the judge said that the question was whether Thao relied on the election judges' behavior to gauge his own actions.

Starr said that at no time did anyone tell Thao to stop interpreting.

"The election judges actively engaged Defendant's language skills to help translate to the non-English speaking voter," she wrote. "In fact, given the language barriers, it is a fair inference that the election judges depended upon Defendant and thus encouraged [Thao] to translate English to Hmong in order to help the voter at every stage of the voting process.

"It was not until the voter had fully [cast] her ballot that Defendant was told he was not allowed to assist the voter in any way."

Many of the election judges knew who Thao was and knew they were obligated to ask him to leave, Starr said. But instead, she wrote, the judges "utilized" his language skills. Thao "reasonably relied" on the election judges' actions, the judge ruled.

Prokopowicz had initially asked Starr not to decide whether Thao was guilty until he could review her earlier decision on the federal law.

Although Prokopowicz reserved his right to ask the Minnesota Court of Appeals to review that decision, he said at an Oct. 31 hearing that allowing her to rule on the question of guilt was the best route.

Thao's attorney, Joe Dixon, said he hoped Starr's latest ruling would be the end of the criminal case.

"We have said since Day One that Dai Thao acted lawfully at every step," Dixon said. "The court has now confirmed that."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib