State high court ruling keeps some Minnesota voter data private

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Minnesota Voters Alliance executive director Andy Cilek, left, and attorney Erick Kaardal, right, sued Secretary of State Steve Simon for access to voter data.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News 2017

Updated: 10:30 a.m.

The Minnesota Supreme Court sided Wednesday with the secretary of state on his decision to withhold additional voter information from a group claiming election fraud.

The 5-2 decision reverses a lower court ruling in a lawsuit by the Minnesota Voters Alliance. That group has sought information about inactive or challenged voters as a way to determine whether ineligible ballots are cast.

When responding to the group’s request, DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon produced a publicly available voter database with names, addresses, birth year, voting history and telephone number for more than 5 million people. Simon withheld details about the eligibility status of voters.

In the majority opinion, Justice David Lillehaug wrote that Simon properly balanced transparency with voter privacy.

“Access to ‘Big Data’ about Minnesota voters requires the balancing of policy values such as transparency, privacy, and discretion,” Lillehaug wrote for the majority that included all of the justices appointed by Democratic governors. “Such balancing is the province of the Legislature that wrote the Data Practices Act and the Minnesota Election Law, the statutes whose words we have read and interpreted today.”

In a dissent, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote that the outcome gives Simon too much power to classify data on his own because data is usually presumed public unless explicitly deemed private.

“Decisions about the classification of government data and public access to voter registration data are policy matters for the Legislature,” Gildea wrote. She was joined by Justice G. Barry Anderson. They are the only two justices who were first appointed to the court by Republican governors.

Simon said in a statement he believed the court’s decision will offer confidence in the election process for the state.

“Every action that I’ve taken in this case was to protect the privacy of Minnesota’s voters and to repay the faith they have in our democracy,” Simon said. “I’m grateful that the Court recognized our legal argument, but more so that this decision will strengthen Minnesotans’ enduring commitment to our right to vote.”

The group that sued expressed disappointment.

"Unfortunately, it appears that Secretary [of State Steve] Simon is determined to continue his obstruction of voting records needed to assess the full extent of ineligible voting in Minnesota and will not be releasing these public records any time soon," said Andy Cilek, executive director of the Minnesota Voters Alliance.

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