"Unreasonable and misleading": Judge blocks Minneapolis' abolish-the-police question from ballot

AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Consider this a case of grassroots trumping the radical activists. The latter have tried to push for a change to Minneapolis’ charter that would remove the requirement to keep its police department. Local residents in neighborhoods most impacted by police staffing shortages claim that the Yes 4 Minneapolis referendum is written deceptively to keep voters from realizing the true impact of their vote.

With less than a week to go before ballots go out, a Hennepin County judge sided with the grassroots, calling the ballot description “unreasonable and misleading”:

A judge on Tuesday rejected an attempt to salvage a proposed charter amendment on the future of policing in Minneapolis, ruling just days before early and absentee voting is due to begin in the city where George Floyd died in police custody that any votes on the question won’t count.

Hennepin County District Judge Jamie Anderson said the new language “does not ensure that voters are able to understand the essential purpose of the proposed amendment. It is unreasonable and misleading.” Ballots containing the question are due back from the printer Wednesday. Anderson’s order allows election officials to use the ballots, but prohibits election officials from counting any votes cast on the issue.

But her ruling wasn’t likely to be the final word. An 11th-hour appeal was coming. Minneapolis City Attorney Jim Rowader said his office was “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.”

Judge Anderson had previously ruled in a similar fashion, in that case ordering the question off the ballot entirely over its misleading description. Last week the City Council tried rewriting the description again and put the question back on the ballot. Local residents again challenged the decision, and this time the ballot printing was already under way. Rather than have the ballots delayed by a reprinting, Anderson enjoined the city from counting the vote.

That does give Yes 4 Minneapolis some breathing room. If the state appellate and/or supreme courts reverse Anderson, it will be a simple matter of allowing the city to count those votes. However, one has to wonder whether the courts will allow that to happen, given the repeated indications that the question is invalid. No matter which side wins, the other will have a good argument that the legal maneuvering around the referendum will have skewed the results thanks to voter confusion.

For that, though, the “abolish the police” activists are to blame. In the first weeks after the George Floyd riots, they were clear and explicit about their aim in this campaign — they wanted to entirely dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department, and not just “defund” it. Several city council members went on record explicitly supporting that outcome, including council president Lisa Bender, who notoriously accused residents calling 911 for property crimes of exercising their white privilege in doing so.

Ever since the abolition fervor waned, however, its advocates have tried mightily to obfuscate that outcome. They have since argued that the charter change would only result in a reimagining of law enforcement, not necessarily its abolition. Those radicals, still including several city council members, keep crafting the ballot language to mislead voters into thinking that the referendum will simply reformulate police staffing, when in fact it provides the opening to abolish it entirely.

Judge Anderson wasn’t fooled either time. Perhaps the radicals will have an easier time on appeal, but hopefully the voices of the people most impacted by the rollback of policing in Minneapolis will prevail again.