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Lawsuit dismissed by federal judge in voters' rights issue

A federal lawsuit regarding voting rights, which named the state and Crow Wing County as defendants, was dismissed Friday.

Federal Judge Donovan Frank dismissed the challenge to same-day registration from two conservative groups and seven individuals who contended ineligible voters cast ballots in 2008 and 2010, the Associated Press reported, drawing from a Minnesota Public Radio report.

The AP reported Frank’s ruling found no federal laws were broken and the groups failed to unearth misconduct or fully pursue their case in state courts. The plaintiffs filed an appeal Friday to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan and Auditor-Treasurer Laureen Borden, representatives of Ramsey County, Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, were all named in the lawsuit.

Crow Wing and Ramsey counties were named as having people cast ballots in the 2010 general election who were not eligible to vote. Four people, who had their voting rights eliminated with their guardianships, voted in the 2010 election in Crow Wing County.

The lawsuit was filed by Minnesota Voters Alliance, Minnesota Freedom Council, Sondra Erickson, Montgomery Jensen, Ron Kaus, Jodi Lyn Nelson, Sharon Stene as guardian and friend for her son James Stene, Richard M. Smisson and Kathleen M. Olson.

“We disagree with the opinion,” said Andy Cilek, Minnesota Voters Alliance president, said Friday afternoon, adding the federal venue was the proper place for the issue not the state courts. “It’s our view the judge failed to address our constitutional arguments. We filed for an appeal, a notice of appeal, this afternoon. ... This is a federal court decision so we disagree with the court.”

Ryan and Borden both said it was inappropriate for them to comment on the federal judge’s decision while the case is still being appealed.

Cilek said the issue is how same-day registration is conducted, not that they are allowed. Individuals under guardianship, with voting rights removed, and felons who may be paroled but have not regained voting rights, noncitizens, people younger than 18 and people who have been ruled mentally incapacitated are among ineligible voters, Cilek said.

“We want as many people to vote as possible, but we want legitimate voters to vote, voters that are eligible and verified,” Cilek said. “We are prepared to take this to the U.S. Supreme Court if need be. I think it might end up in the supreme court.”

Kaus, former lakes area resident who now lives in Duluth, said they always knew they’d be in appeals court one way or another.

“You want to win the war and not the battle,” Kaus said Friday. “I think we have a good case.”

If ineligible voters are allowed to cast their ballots, Cilek said that’s a direct infringement on the rights of eligibly voting citizens and leaves them without a way to challenge ineligible votes before they are counted.

If a person or ward is determined to be mentally incapacitated by the probate court, Cilek said the court should make a decision on their voting rights as the U.S. Constitution says voters need to be mentally competent.

“That’s what our suit is focused on,” Cilek said, noting one of the Crow Wing County voters, James Stene, was legally eligible to vote as that right had not been removed although Stene suffered a brain injury in a near drowning as a child. Stene’s parents said their son was taken to vote when he was a Clark Lake group home resident without their prior consent. Cilek said Stene is mentally incapacitated but not prevented from voting though by the state because the court didn’t take his voting rights away.

“Therein lies our problem,” Cilek said. “That’s what’s caused all these problems.”

Kaus said the voter eligibility issue is much more popular with people than voter identification and the issue isn’t just about Crow Wing County as it happens across the state. Kaus said the effort with the case is a tribute to the late Al Stene, James Stene’s father, who felt his son was exploited.

Cilek said the court has to make the judgment to protect the dignity of the individual determined to be mentally incapacitated and to protect voters’ rights so only eligible voters are counted.

“So that’s really where the problem is,” Cilek said. “All this dispute is coming from that 2003 law that said people under guardianship can vote unless there is a court order that they can’t.”

The AP noted the ruling doesn’t affect legal challenges to a constitutional amendment that would require voters to present a photo identification in order to vote.

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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