Judge: St. Paul City Council Member Thao acted legally in helping voter

November 10, 2018

St. Paul City Council Member Dai Thao acted legally when he helped a woman vote in an election last year in which he was a mayoral candidate, a judge ruled.

Ramsey County District Court Judge Nicole Starr issued a decision late Friday stating that Thao was not guilty of all criminal charges filed against him.

At every step of the voting process, Defendant was open and transparent about his aid to a non-English speaking voter, Starr wrote. He encountered several election judges, who actively worked with him to ensure that the non-English speaking voter understood the process and was able to cast her vote.

The decision doesnt necessarily put an end to the criminal case filed against Thao; the prosecutor could potentially appeal the order.

Both sides agreed late last month to allow the judge to take the matter of Thaos innocence or guilt under review.

Thao, 43, was charged in February with three misdemeanor counts of unlawfully marking a ballot, misconduct in and near polling places and unlawfully assisting a voter. Minnesota law prohibits candidates for office from assisting voters in a polling place.

Thao drove a 63-year-old Hmong woman to an early voting site. Thao, who is Hmong, interpreted for her, helped her register to vote and marked her choices on the ballot. Thao was running for St. Paul mayor at time, but lost to Melvin Carter.

The case started tilting in Thaos favor when Starr issued an earlier order finding that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 pre-empts Minnesota law regulating a candidates actions at polling stations, and that Thaos actions were permissible under federal law.

The polling place had no Hmong interpreters available, and it was unacceptable to expect that the woman should wait for an interpreter when Thao was able to assist her, Starr wrote.

Chief Deputy Dakota County Attorney Phil Prokopowicz, who is prosecuting the case to avoid a conflict of interest in Ramsey County, had initially asked Starr not to decide Thaos innocence or guilt until he could review that first decision. Although Prokopowicz reserved his right to ask the Minnesota Court of Appeals to review Starrs decision regarding the federal law, he said at an Oct. 31 hearing that allowing her to decide innocence or guilt was the best route.

Just for efficiencys purpose, thats all, Prokopowicz said at the time.

Prokopowicz and Thaos attorney, Joe Dixon, could not be immediately reached for comment about Starrs latest decision.

Chao Xiong 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

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