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Butler v. City of Saint Paul

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

January 14, 2019

Peter K. Butler, petitioner, Appellant,
City of Saint Paul, et al., Respondents.

          Ramsey County District Court File No. 62-CV-17-4294

          Terence G. O'Brien, Jr., Law Office of Terence G. O'Brien, PLLC, St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant)

          Lyndsey M. Olson, St. Paul City Attorney, Anthony G. Edwards, Assistant City Attorney, St. Paul, Minnesota (for respondents)

          Considered and decided by Cleary, Chief Judge; Bjorkman, Judge; and Rodenberg, Judge.


         1. Election officials of a home rule charter city do not err in relying on the Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS) to determine whether a petition to amend the charter of a home rule city contains the requisite number of signatures of registered voters in a city.

         2. When a petition under Minn. Stat. § 204B.44 (2018) alleges that election officials committed an error, omission, or wrongful act in determining that a petition to amend a home rule city charter under Minn. Stat. § 410.12 (2018) is inadequate for failure to contain the requisite number of signatures of registered voters, the petitioner bears the burden of proving the existence of an error, omission, or wrongful act.

         3. In order to create a genuine issue of material fact concerning an error, omission, or wrongful act by election officials who rely on the SVRS, the petitioner must present the district court with admissible evidence contrary to the relied-on SVRS record.


          RODENBERG, Judge.

         Appellant Peter K. Butler challenges the district court's grant of summary judgment dismissing his petition under Minn. Stat. § 204B.44 to correct alleged errors, omissions, or wrongful acts by respondent City of St. Paul in rejecting appellant's petition under Minn. Stat. § 410.12 to amend the St. Paul City Charter. Because appellant failed to provide the district court with affirmative and admissible evidence that St. Paul election officials erred in rejecting certain signatures on the petition based on the SVRS, we affirm.


         Appellant and others gathered signatures in support of a petition to amend section 7.01 of the St. Paul City Charter. The proposed amendment sought to change the home-rule-charter provision that city elections shall occur in odd-numbered years to require city elections to occur in even-numbered years. In order for the charter-amendment proposal to be placed on the ballot, a "petition of voters equal in number to five percent of the total votes cast at the last previous state general election in the city" was required. Minn. Stat. § 410.12, subd. 1. The 2016 state general election was the relevant general election. The parties agree that, to meet the five-percent statutory threshold, 7, 011 signatures were needed on the petition. On July 7, 2017, appellant submitted his petition with 7, 656 signatures to the Ramsey County Elections Office (elections office), St. Paul's appointed agent for reviewing and verifying such petitions.

         The elections office inspected the 786-page petition and used the SVRS, which contains information for every registered Minnesota voter, to determine the petition's sufficiency. Seven days after appellant submitted the petition, a Ramsey County Elections Specialist emailed appellant a notice of insufficiency. The notice explained that the petition contained 5, 866 valid signatures and that appellant had ten days to cure the insufficiency. Appellant requested that the elections office provide him with further details. The elections office promptly responded by providing the certification of petition insufficiency and invited appellant to submit any further questions. The elections office explained that the petition was insufficient because 1, 529 people who signed the petition as residents of St. Paul were not registered to vote in St. Paul, and 231 signers did not provide all of the required information.[1] The elections office invalidated 49 signatures for other reasons.

         Appellant did not submit additional signatures or information within the ten-day time period. Instead, he filed a petition in the district court, under Minn. Stat. § 204B.44, to correct errors or omissions, alleging that the notice of insufficiency and certificate of insufficiency failed to comply with Minn. Stat. § 410.12, subd. 3.

         Minn. Stat. § 204B.44 allows for the filing of a petition with the district court for the correction of errors, omissions, or wrongful acts made by "any election judge, municipal clerk, county auditor, canvassing board or any of its members, the secretary of state, or any other individual charged with any duty concerning an election." Minn. Stat. § 204B.44(a)(4). The petition must describe the error, omission, or wrongful act, and the correction sought by the petitioner, and "shall be filed with . . . any judge of the district court in that county in the case of an election for county, municipal or school district office." Id. (b). Appellant argued to the district court that the notice of insufficiency did not comply with the statute because it did not set forth any particulars regarding the defects. He claimed that, until he was informed of the exact defects, he was unable to obtain additional signatures that would not be determined to be similarly defective.

         Appellant moved the district court for an immediate hearing under Minn. Stat. § 204B.44 to compel the elections office to comply with Minn. Stat. § 410.12, subd. 3, or to show cause as to why the requested relief should not be granted. In the alternative, appellant requested that the district court direct the elections office to certify his section 410.12 petition as sufficient so that the proposal would appear on the November 7, 2017 general election ballot, or strike the certification of insufficiency and order the elections office to individually reexamine all signatures. The district court directed the elections office to correct the claimed error or show cause for not doing so.

         Appellant also moved for summary judgment declaring his section 410.12 petition sufficient. Appellant stated by affidavit that he had purchased an official registered-voter list from the secretary of state and compared that list with the signatures the elections office determined were invalid.[2] He claimed that, in multiple instances, the elections office invalidated the signatures of individuals who were listed on St. Paul voter-registration lists when they signed the petition.

         Respondents moved to dismiss appellant's petition, arguing that the elections office was not required to explain why each signature was rejected and that appellant failed to establish that respondents had committed any error. The elections office supplied the district court with information that it reviewed the petition a second time, identified each rejected signature, and produced a spreadsheet including the reasons it rejected certain signatures. The elections office again used the SVRS to determine the sufficiency of the petition. The elections office adjusted its determination of the number of valid signatures to 5, 951 (up from 5, 866) and the corresponding number of invalid signatures to 1, 712.

         At a hearing in August 2017 on these competing motions, the parties agreed that additional discovery was necessary concerning whether respondents committed an error, omission, or wrongful act when it rejected the signatures. The parties agreed to stay the proceedings and hold over the voter-circulated petition for submission of a ballot question at the 2018 general election.

         After discovery, the district court revisited the parties' motions concerning whether respondents committed an error, omission, or wrongful act in the issuance of the notice and certification of insufficiency. The district court determined that election officials "fully complied with their statutory duties set forth in Minn. Stat. § 410.12 with respect to the delivery of the certificate to the required entity, the required contents of that certificate, and delivery of notice of insufficiency to [appellant]" and therefore dismissed the petition in part. The district court concluded that the petition "does not state a claim that respondents committed an error, omission, or wrongful act with respect to the issuance of the certificate or notice."

         Using the SVRS, respondents later reviewed the petition for a third time and for a fourth and final time, after which they reported that 5, 956 signatures were valid and 1, 700 signatures were invalid. The parties later stipulated that at least 5, 957 signatures were valid. The home-rule-charter measure was not put on the November 2017 ballot, and respondents moved for summary judgment in December 2017.

         After a February 2018 hearing on the summary-judgment motions, the district court concluded that appellant "produced some record evidence that 980 of the rejected signatories were residents of St. Paul and registered voters eligible to vote at the time they signed the petition or at the time of submission of the petition to respondents." The district court determined that, even if those 980 signatures were added to the 5, 957 valid signatures, the petition would remain 74 signatures short of the statutory requirement. Appellant identified an additional 147 signatures that he claimed were improperly rejected. Considering those additional signatures, the district court determined that appellant "failed to meet his burden to identify any error, omission or wrongful act in the rejection of the remaining 147 signatures [appellant] now identifies as erroneously rejected." The district court found no error in the election office's validation process, because the ...

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