ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) – A group of landlords and a conservative election watchdog group in Minnesota’s Twin Cities prevailed Monday in their challenge against two city ordinances that required them to provide voter registration information to their tenants.
U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright, an Obama appointee, ruled that the ordinances in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the state’s two largest cities, unconstitutionally compel free speech. The judge permanently enjoined both cities from enforcing the ordinances.
Both of the ordinances required landlords to distribute flyers to their new tenants with information – approved by the cities and distributed by city clerks – on how and where the tenants could register to vote. That requirement, opponents complained, was burdensome and pushed the ideological objectives of the city governments.
The suit was brought by several Twin Cities landlords and the Minnesota Voters Alliance, a group that has thrown its weight behind several other election-related causes in the state.
In an opinion issued Monday morning, Wright did not comment on the claim that voter registration information served an ideological objective. Ideological or not, she noted, compelled speech is subject to strict scrutiny. While the cities’ efforts to increase voter registration among renters constitute a compelling government interest, the exclusion of existing tenants raised a red flag for Wright. So did the appearance that the cities’ methods are unproven.
“There is nothing in the record that addresses the actual or purported effectiveness of Defendants’ ordinances,” Wright wrote. “Defendants provide no evidence as to the percentage of tenants who receive the voter-registration flyers, as to how many of those renters actually review the flyers or find them helpful, or that the flyers have had any actual effect on voter participation among renters. Nor is there anecdotal evidence that similar efforts elsewhere have resulted in higher voter participation among renters.”
The cities additionally did not demonstrate that existing remedies, such as holding voter registration events, mailing the information or asking willing distributors to give out the pamphlets, were not sufficient.
“We’re really happy with the court ruling. We think the City of Minneapolis and city of St. Paul, that their ordinances targeted landlords unfairly,” said Erick Kaardal, an attorney at Mohrman, Kaardal, & Erickson who represented the Alliance. “Of course the landlords want maximum registration of voters, but the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis picked an unconstitutional means … The landlords want to do the best for their landlord-tenant relationships, but requiring voting information is one step beyond that.”
Shortly after filing the case in December, the Alliance asked in a statement: “What groups will these city councils target next? Barbers, Uber drivers?”
“These unconstitutional ordinances are based on the idea that renters who want to vote are too incompetent to do so without handholding by the elite politicians who know how those tenants should live their lives,” the statement said.
In 2018, the group garnered a U.S. Supreme Court victory in Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky, in which the court overturned a Minnesota law forbidding political attire at polling places. The group has also opposed the state’s same-day voter registration option and sued Secretary of State Steve Simon, claiming that the state does not adequately enforce prohibitions on felon voting.
City officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.
Kaardal said that while he has not heard whether the cities plan to appeal, he and the Alliance are “in for a penny, in for a pound.”