ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Attorneys representing the two major political parties faced off in the Minnesota Supreme Court on Thursday in a dispute over two state laws limiting Minnesotans’ ability to help others vote.
The statutes at issue allow Minnesota residents with disabilities or an inability to read English to seek help with filling out their ballot and, if they vote absentee, delivering it. The caveat, which the Democratic Senate and Congressional Campaign Committees have challenged, is that any one person can only assist three people.
That restriction, Democrats argued, is preempted by a 1982 amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which grants disabled and illiterate voters the right to receive assistance in voting.
Republicans, who intervened in the Democratic committees’ case against Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, argued that removing the provisions – prohibiting what they called “ballot harvesting,” and Democrats referred to as “ballot collection” – would lead to election fraud.
“This case was brought by political party committees who claim unfettered rights to collect voters’ ballots,” said John Gore of the Washington firm Jones Day, who represented the Republican Party of Minnesota and Republican National Committee in arguments before the state high court on Thursday morning.
Bruce Spiva of Perkins Coie, also a Washington firm, represented the Democratic committees, and pointed out that election fraud is already illegal in Minnesota.
When the justices inquired about the possibility that striking down the statutes could create situations like that seen in 2018 in North Carolina – when a GOP campaign operative reportedly hired people to collect unsealed ballots and tampered with them – Spiva said similar prohibitions did not stop the scheme in the Tar Heel State.
“That involved an orchestrated campaign by the Republican in that race – by his campaign, I should say, to unlawfully apply for ballots, to unlawfully mark ballots, sometimes to open ballots that had been sealed and throw them away,” Spiva said. “Ballot collection itself was unlawful in North Carolina, and it still did not prevent an orchestrated campaign of fraud.”
Spiva further argued that the prohibitions on voter assistance disproportionately harmed immigrant communities by restricting access to translators, along with residents of Native American reservations, where post offices and polling places are few and far between.
Gore, however, argued the Democrats did not provide any specific examples of voters impeded by the rules. Stories of voters leaving the polls because no translators were available to help them vote, he said, didn’t pass muster.
“The fact that there wasn’t a translator available doesn’t tell the whole story, because it doesn’t tell whether a voter was able to go out and find a translator,” he said.
Gore’s argument also focused heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, in which the nation’s high court upheld an Indiana voter ID law and found that the process of obtaining photo ID did not place a substantial burden on voters.
That argument gained some traction with Justice Natalie Hudson.
“Obviously, we would all agree, and the Supreme Court has said, voting is a fundamental right,” Hudson said. “But it seems to me that… despite the fact that voting is a fundamental right, Crawford proposes a more flexible standard.”
Haunting the live-streamed Zoom proceedings, as with other election cases, was the specter of Covid-19. Gore emphasized that, despite driving Minnesota’s recent record-setting absentee voting numbers, the pandemic should have no bearing on the case. Spiva did not contest that argument.
The case brought by the Democratic committees follows close on the heels of another one, Thao v. Simon, which stemmed from criminal charges brought against St. Paul City Council member Dai Thao for assisting an older, non-English-speaking fellow member of the city’s Hmong community to fill out her ballot in the 2019 City Council elections.
The Hmong people, an ethnic group indigenous to Laos, have become one of the Twin Cities’ largest immigrant communities since their arrival in the mid-1970s. Thao successfully sued earlier this year to overturn a restriction preventing candidates from assisting voters on the same preemption grounds raised by the Democratic groups.
Ramsey County District Court Judge Thomas Gilligan Jr. ultimately approved a consent decree signed by Thao, three Hmong co-plaintiffs and Simon preventing enforcement of the statute. Republicans also intervened in that case, but have not appealed the decree.
Neither party responded to requests for comment on Thursday afternoon, nor did the office of Simon, a Democrat.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.