Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon won the right to keep some voter information private with a state Supreme Court ruling Wednesday overturning two lower court decisions in a three-year legal dispute.
In a 5-2 decision, the high court said Simon need not turn over information sought by the Minnesota Voters Alliance regarding voters’ status, reasons for any challenges to their registrations and information on voters not currently registered.
The Supreme Court said the additional information sought by the Voters Alliance was accessible only to public officials for specific purposes. In declining access to that information, the secretary of state followed the law, the court said.
The lawsuit dates to January 2017 when the Voters Alliance asked Simon for access to an electronic copy of data in the statewide voter registration system, including voter identification numbers, names, addresses, phone numbers, years of birth, voting history, types of ballots (absentee or in person), voters’ status (active, inactive, deleted, challenged), reasons for challenges and all other information.
The information is part of a statewide database that contains 19 fields of information on 5.4 million voters, 3.3 million of whom have active registrations.
Alliance lawyer Erick Kaardal said he accepts the ruling but, “we still need to get that information to improve Minnesota’s elections.” He added that the group will seek a change in data classification by the Legislature. “We’re confident in our mission. This is a setback, but we’re not going to get off our mission of election integrity,” he said.
In August 2017, Simon told the group it was entitled only to the name, address, year of birth, history, district and telephone number of each voter. Ramsey County Judge Jennifer Frisch disagreed, telling Simon to hand over the data. The court of appeals agreed the data is public.
The Voters Alliance frequently challenges election laws, echoing GOP claims of widespread fraudulent voting. DFLers and voting-rights activists counter that the claims of fraud are a ruse aimed at intimidating voters and suppressing turnout. Simon is a DFLer.
Justice David Lillehaug wrote for the court’s majority, which included Justices Margaret Chutich, Natalie Hudson, Anne McKeig and Paul Thissen.
Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea was joined in dissent by Justice G. Barry Anderson. The dissent said the majority “flips” the presumption of public access to government data and allows Simon “to make his own classifications.”
The data withheld by Simon is not classified as “nonpublic” by state law so it should be released, according to the dissent.
Simon said the foundation of Minnesota’s nation-leading voter turnout is confidence in the privacy and security of voter information.
“The Minnesota Voters Alliance made a request that would have violated that trust, and I’m glad that the Court judged that to be an unacceptable risk,” he said in a statement.