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.
“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.