Lawsuit argues Minnesota law discriminates against disabled and non English-speaking voters

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Minnesotans are already heading to the polls with Super Tuesday just a month away. Meanwhile, some Democrats are trying to change a state law they say discriminates against some voters.

A voter who doesn’t read English or has a disability that prevents them from marking a ballot can ask for help.

Under state statute, they can be assisted by two elections judges who are members of different major political parties. The voter can also choose to be helped by someone they know, but that person can only assist three voters.

David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University and University of Minnesota law schools, says there are a couple of reasons that law is in place.

"I think the general justification here is that maybe helping one person, two people, three people might be OK, but there’s probably some kind of allegation that if you’re helping lots of people, there’s some kind of fraud or something illegitimate going on there," Schultz said. "Whether or not that’s true is a different story entirely.”

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee want to get rid of the limit. The two committees work to elect Democrats into office.

They filed a lawsuit against the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office in January to challenge the law.

“Which is discriminatory to people who don’t speak English as a first language, people who are vision impaired, people with disabilities,” said DCCC spokeswoman Robyn Patterson. “We are fighting to have this law repealed because it stops people who need help filling out their ballot form getting the help they need.”

The lawsuit points to Minnesota’s Somali and Hmong populations.

It says those voters “… can simply run out of Somali speakers who are able to assist them. The same is true for Hmong Americans.”

The lawsuit goes on to say, "Voters with disabilities face similar hardships."

“It’s stopping people from even helping their relatives from voting,” said Patterson. “It’s wrong for us to set arbitrary limits on who can help.”

In 2019, state lawmakers considered a bill to remove the limit. It was introduced by Rep. Samantha Vang, DFL-Brooklyn Center.

She released a statement as part of the DCCC’s press release about the lawsuit.

“One of the most important parts of a representative democracy is ensuring the ballot box is accessible to all eligible voters, that includes people facing language barriers and those with disabilities,” Vang said. “I authored a bill in 2019 to lift restrictions on helping voters cast their ballots, and was passed in the House but stalled in the Senate. I hope to see this unjust law changed, either through the courts or the legislative process.”

During the legislative process, Secretary of State Steve Simon spoke at a House Subcommittee Meeting on Jan. 30, 2019.

“I think we could do this the easy way, or we could do it the hard way,” Simon said at the meeting. “The easy way is to pass this bill and get this antiquated law off the books, that only one other state, Arkansas, has, or we can do it the hard way and not repeal this law, be sued, pretty good chance we lose.”

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS reached out to Simon for a response to the lawsuit. His office said he cannot comment on pending litigation.

“The fact that the Minnesota secretary of state has said this law would likely not stand up in court is definitely helpful for us in bringing it to our attention,” said Patterson.

Schultz said he sees both sides.

"There’s a pretty good argument to say it’s unreasonable," he said.

But he told us there’s no guarantee the lawsuit will move forward.

“It’s a hard lawsuit to win because, again, you do have to show there’s no other way that I can vote,” Schultz said. “That’s going to be a high threshold to overcome.”

He said states are able to impose some voting regulations.

“The Supreme Court has said severe restrictions to try to prevent you from voting are unconstitutional, but reasonable administration regulations are OK,” said Schultz.

The lawsuit comes at a strategic time for Democrats, who are trying to boost turnout ahead of the presidential primary on March 3, the primary in August and Election Day in November.

“This is potentially very important for them,” said Schultz.

Patterson told us they hope to have the lawsuit resolved ahead of the upcoming elections.