Minnesota Supreme Court Puts Aside Limits on Ballot Assistance

Minnesota Supreme Court Puts Aside Limits on Ballot Assistance
County Clerk Brenda Jaszewski holds a box of absentee ballots from the town of Erin, Wis., as Board of Canvass member Marilyn Merten reaches to take a ballot out during a statewide presidential election recount in West Bend, Wis., on Dec. 1, 2016. (John Ehlke/West Bend Daily News via AP)
Matthew Vadum

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a state law purporting to limit to three the number of voters any single person can help cast a ballot in person, which was suspended earlier this year, will remain unenforceable for the upcoming Nov. 3 election.

Minnesota is a battleground state this year after President Donald Trump, a Republican, came much closer to victory in the deep-blue state in 2016 than almost all election handicappers thought possible, losing to Democrat Hillary Clinton by just 1.5 percentage points, or 44,765 votes, out of close to 3 million ballots cast.

The ruling comes as Republicans complain about so-called ballot-harvesting laws, which allow organized workers or volunteers to collect absentee ballots from voters and deliver those ballots to a polling place. Republicans complain that ballot-harvesting makes it easier for the votes of illegal aliens and those not interested or well-informed about the political process to be cast. Absentee voting begins in the state on Sept. 18.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) sued to block Minnesota’s voter assistance limits, arguing they were unconstitutional.

Earlier this year before the Aug. 11 primary elections in Minnesota, Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat, settled a separate legal action out of court. In that consent decree, Simon said he would order county attorneys and election administrators to refrain from enforcing the in-person voter help limit, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported.

Earlier in the litigation, Ramsey County District Judge Thomas Gilligan granted the DSCC’s request for a temporary restraining order halting the enforcement of the limits on both in-person and absentee ballot assistance. That court found the plaintiffs would probably prevail on their claims that the limits ran afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act, the Minnesota Constitution, and state and federal free speech and association rights, the newspaper reported.

The Republican Party of Minnesota and Republican National Committee appealed the case, and the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed to review Gilligan’s ruling on an expedited basis. Oral arguments were conducted remotely Sept. 3.

Republicans argued Democrats were trying to “claim unfettered constitutional rights to mark and to collect voters’ ballots” and void two state laws protecting electoral integrity “by limiting ballot marking and ballot harvesting by third parties.”

Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea disagreed.

In an order dated Sept. 4, in the appeal cited as DSCC v. Simon, she ruled that Simon “is temporarily enjoined from enforcing the prohibition in Minnesota Statutes ... that limits a person who requires assistance in marking a ballot used for any form of permitted voting, by reason of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write, from using the assistance of a person who has assisted three other voters in the election.”

Christian Adams, president of the Indianapolis-based Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) and a former U.S. Department of Justice civil rights attorney, said in the issue at hand the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled correctly.

“Section 208 of the [federal] Voting Rights Act makes it a right as a matter of federal law to have anyone provide you assistance voting if you need it. ... Voters have an absolute right to assistance at the polls if they need it. State laws which infringe on this right are invalid as a matter of federal supremacy.”