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Lawmaker looks to eliminate one of Minnesota’s peculiar, and possibly illegal, election rules

Secretary of State Steve Simon and state Rep. Samantha Vang
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon and state Rep. Samantha Vang speaking before the House Subcommittee on Elections about Vang's voting bill.

The first bill that newly elected Minnesota state Rep. Samantha Vang was able to get to a committee vote involves something personal: Voting.

The DFLer from Brooklyn Center is one of four newly elected Hmong-American legislators, and she recently told the House Subcommittee on Elections that there are many members of her community that need help marking their ballots, both because of language barriers and because they have disabilities that make it more difficult to vote.

The problem: current state law says that no one can help more than three voters fill in their ballots. Vang said the restriction has a disproportionate impact on communities with English proficiency challenges, including Minnesota’s Hmong-American community. She, for example, couldn’t bring her parents and grandparents to the polls and legally help all of them vote.

The current statute allows people who do not speak English or who have a disability to vote in one of two ways: they can ask an election judges to mark their ballots with their preference; or they can bring someone to help them mark their ballots.

There are now limits on a voter’s choice of a helper: It can’t be an agent of their employer; it can’t be an agent of a union; it can’t be a candidate for office on the same ballot; and it can’t be someone who has already helped at least three other voters. Vang’s bill, House File 94, would remove the last restriction only.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon told the committee that he thinks the current provision limiting the number of voters who can be helped by someone could put Minnesota on the losing side of any legal challenge under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 2017, a case out of Texas found that a requirement that interpreters who helped voters fill out ballots must be registered voters within the same county was overly burdensome. The federal law specifically gives voters who need help the choice of who provides that help.

Texas did not appeal and Simon said he was contacted after that ruling by a Minnesota law firm that threatened litigation. Such a challenge would argue that the cap on the number of voters who can be helped by a single person places an undue burden on voters protected by the Voting Rights Act.

Only one other state, Arkansas, has any limit on how many voters someone can help. “To be blunt about it, I think we can do this the easy or we can do it the hard way,” Simon said. “The easy way would be to pass this bill and get this antiquated law off the books. Or we can do it the hard way. We could not repeal this law, be sued, pretty good chance we’d lose, incur a bunch of attorney fees and have the court tell us to repeal the law.

Neng Xiong
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Hmong elder Neng Xiong speaking before the House Subcommittee on Elections.
“If we don’t repeal this law, it may be repealed, in effect, for us at considerable expense,” Simon said. The bill also has the support of disability rights activists.

The state law in question was at issue in a Ramsey County case against St. Paul City Councilman Dai Thao after the 2017 election. Thao, who was running for mayor of St. Paul, helped a Hmong elder vote, and he was later charged with violating the provision of the law that bars a candidate on the same ballot from giving assistance to a voter.

Thao was acquitted of the charges. Election judges were aware of the request by the voter for help and aware that Thao had offered his assistance, and it was only after the ballot was cast that the election judges told Thao that his behavior was an issue.

Vang’s bill was approved by the committee and sent to the House Government Operations Committee for further consideration. The only Republican on the elections subcommittee who was present, Rep. Tim O’Driscoll of Sartell, voted against the bill.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/01/2019 - 11:17 am.

    Better late than never…

  2. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 02/01/2019 - 11:57 am.

    I thought that being able to speak, read, and write English was a requirement to be naturalized as a citizen. What happened to that?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/01/2019 - 12:54 pm.

      It doesn’t mean you have to be completely comfortable using English in all contexts. The CIS officer who asks questions has to be satisfied that the applicant can understand and speak well enough, and the applicant has to read at least one sentence out of three presented. Long-time residents are sometimes exempted from the language requirement.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/03/2019 - 11:40 am.

      You’re describing a literacy test, and those are unconstitutional.

    • Submitted by Nicky Noel on 01/23/2020 - 09:58 am.

      You are exempt from the English language requirement, but are still required to take the civics test if you are:

      Age 50 or older at the time of filing for naturalization and have lived as a permanent resident (Green Card holder) in the United States for 20 years (commonly referred to as the “50/20” exception).
      Age 55 or older at the time of filing for naturalization and have lived as a permanent resident in the United States for 15 years (commonly referred to as the “55/15” exception).

  3. Submitted by Carl Brookins on 02/01/2019 - 07:42 pm.

    I totally support this bill. The change is overdue. It cannot be that hard for a election judge to keep an eye on an individual designated to help any voter who needs help voting.

  4. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 02/01/2019 - 11:31 pm.

    Every citizen has the right to vote and the process and law should be clear.
    “Helping fill out the ballot” isn’t a clear phrase,” On hat ground I’m in favor of the amendment,

    How about absentee and early voting? In one election, election judges opened 50 absentee ballots early. 38 of the ballots were from one address, a nusing home; 16 were x-signed and notarized and the ballots were al seoarately notarized by the same person, an IR Cngressional Disctict Chairwoman.

    The DFL candidate got 8 votes, and the IR candidate 42. If the 16 votes spoilild by the double notarization were assumed to be for the DFL candidate and 8 for the IR candidate, a net margin of 34 instead of 42, the DFL candidate would have won a State Senate seat.

    This was decades ago, but the only clear voting fraud I’ve heard about since 1966.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/04/2019 - 07:36 am.

      Conservatives gin up fears of in person voter fraud, which is a non-issue. Mail in ballots are much more susceptible to fraud, but they don’t want to go there, better to keep minority, student, and elderly voters away from the polls with voter ID suppression tactics.

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