ST. PAUL — The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota is suing Secretary of State Steve Simon, alleging state voting laws illegally discriminate against Minnesota voters who need assistance casting their ballots.

State law currently forbids political candidates from assisting any voters with their ballots, including in circumstances when the voter has a disability or language barrier. It is also a crime in Minnesota for one person to help more than three people vote, even if they have challenges doing so on their own.

On Tuesday, Feb. 11, the nonpartisan litigating group filed its suit against Minnesota on behalf of four plaintiffs, who argue that these state laws violate the federal Voting Rights Act, which "explicitly allows people who need assistance to choose who will help them to ensure voters are not disenfranchised because of disability or language barriers."

Staff Attorney David McKinney told Forum News Service that the issue was brought to ACLU-MN by disabled and non-English-speaking voters who faced barriers or even hostility at the polls, as well as community activists who want to help but are unable or afraid to. Other states have limits to the number of voters one person can assist, but McKinney said he was unaware of any so low as three.

Asked about bad actors who could take advantage if these laws were more lax, McKinney said ACLU-MN's case emphasizes the fact that whoever offers assistance should be up to the voter to choose — someone they trust, like a caregiver, family member or trusted community member. The suit is not challenging separate laws that criminalize tampering, persuasion or voter fraud.

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Among the four plaintiffs is St. Paul City Council member Dai Thao, who was arrested in 2018 for assisting a woman who was having trouble seeing and translating her ballot. He was eventually found not guilty on all counts.

In the ACLU-MN's Tuesday news release, Thao said, "No one should be prosecuted under these statutes as I was."

“I am proud to fight against the injustice of voter suppression,” he added. “This statute unfairly limits the ability of vulnerable voters who want to exercise the most basic demonstration of a democracy — the right to vote."

In addition to Thao, his wife and activist Amee Xiong, St. Paul City Council member Nelsie Yang and activist Chong Lee are plaintiffs. Xiong and Lee say they want to help voters in need of assistance, but feel restricted by state law. All four plaintiffs are Hmong-American.

According to the ACLU-MN's complaint, more than 19,000 voting-age St. Paul residents identified as Hmong in 2015. Of those, roughly 28% said they speak English "not well" or "not at all." For those over 65 years old, more than 80% said they have trouble speaking English.

McKinney said that population "works, pays taxes, respects the law and contributes to the wealth of diversity in our society, and yet when it comes to quintessential American value of voting, they are oftentimes not able to exercise that."

"Immigrant communities have contributed so much to the ethos of the fabric of American life, and yet when it comes to those critical decisions that our politicians make, they are often left out of the process," he said.

Minnesota state Rep. Samantha Vang, D-Brooklyn Center, introduced a bill in 2019 to remove the three-person limit, which has not been passed.

A spokesperson for Simon said his office is unable to comment on pending litigation.