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Judge throws out latest Minneapolis policing ballot language

Liz Navratil, Star Tribune on

Published in News & Features

MINNEAPOLIS — A question determining the future of Minneapolis policing has effectively been tossed from the November ballot, after a judge ruled Tuesday that officials couldn't use the latest phrasing or tabulate votes on the proposal.

But that's unlikely to end the legal saga, with an almost certain emergency appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

In a 17-page order, Hennepin County Judge Jamie Anderson struck down the ballot language for the third time in less than two months. City officials approved the latest version a week ago, after Anderson struck down a prior version of the question.

"The Court finds that the New Ballot Question does not ensure that voters are able to understand the essential purpose of the proposed amendment," Anderson wrote. "It is unreasonable and misleading."

Terrance W. Moore, an attorney for Yes 4 Minneapolis, the group that wrote the proposal, said they "respectfully disagree" with the judge's order, and an attorney for the city said they were "focused on a speedy appellate process."

Anderson's ruling came just three days before early voting is set to begin in the first municipal races since George Floyd was killed by police. The proposal has become a central issue in the election and is drawing national attention and money.

The case hinges on how to write a neutral ballot question for a proposal that could clear the way for city officials to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new public safety agency.

The measure changes the Minneapolis charter by removing the requirement to keep a Police Department with a minimum number of officers. It then requires the city to create a new agency providing "a comprehensive public health approach to safety."

For more than a month now, city leaders have been embroiled in political and legal fights over how to interpret those charter changes — and what that means for constructing a neutral ballot question.

The latest challenge was brought by three Minneapolis residents — businessman Bruce Dachis, nonprofit CEO Sondra Samuels and former City Council Member Don Samuels — who argued the current version of the ballot question was misleading. Their attorneys also painted a dire picture of what would happen if officials failed to create a plan for the new agency in the 30 days before the change took effect.

Attorneys for Yes 4 Minneapolis and the city pushed back, saying the language needed to be sufficient to tell residents they were voting on the public safety proposal — as opposed to another on the ballot — but cautioned against trying to provide too much explanation, saying that was more appropriate for campaigns.

 

In her latest order, Anderson wrote that the ballot question doesn't have to explain all the effects of a charter amendment but it must convey its essential purpose.

"The New Ballot Question is 'so complex that voters' cannot be expected to 'understand the meaning or essential purpose' of the proposed charter amendment," she wrote, adding later: "The New Ballot Question is so unreasonable and misleading as to be a palpable evasion of the constitutional requirement to submit the law to a vote."

Throughout the court proceedings, attorneys have argued fiercely over whether state law requires the issue to be placed on the November ballot or whether it could be pushed to a future election.

Anderson's order blocks elections officials from using the latest ballot phrasing this November but leaves open the possibility the proposal would still appear at a future election.

Attorneys for Dachis and the Samuels had also asked her to block city officials from approving new wording until a plan for the new department was in place. Anderson declined that request, saying "the Court has no authority to order such an injunction and will not do so."

Appeals are expected. In a statement after the Tuesday ruling, City Attorney Jim Rowader said his office "is focused on a speedy appellate process to ensure all voters have the opportunity to make known their positions on this critical issue as part of the municipal election this year."

With ballots already being printed, the judge wrote that she was taking steps "to lessen the impact of this Order while the parties pursue an appeal."

Anderson said the question can remain on the ballots being printed. If an appeal is filed and there isn't a ruling before early voting starts Friday, Anderson instructed elections officials to "provide, with each ballot, a notice of ballot change instructing all voters that the New Ballot Question should not be voted on and will not be counted or reported pursuant to court order."

She also blocked them from "tallying or counting or in any way considering votes on the New Ballot Question."

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