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Butler v. City of Saint Paul

Supreme Court of Minnesota

December 18, 2019

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

          Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

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

          Lyndsey M. Olson, Saint Paul City Attorney, Anthony G. Edwards, Assistant City Attorney, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for respondents.

         SYLLABUS

         Because city election officials did not err in using the statewide voter registration system to verify that appellant's petition met statutory signature requirements, and because appellant did not carry his burden to prove that his petition met those requirements, the district court properly granted summary judgment on appellant's challenge to the rejection of his petition.

         Affirmed.

          OPINION

          GILDEA, CHIEF JUSTICE

         The question presented in this case is whether city election officials erred in refusing to put appellant Peter Butler's petition to amend Saint Paul's City Charter before the voters in the next election. The City, relying on the statewide voter registration system ("SVRS"), concluded that Butler's petition did not have the required number of signatures and rejected the petition. Butler asserted that the City's rejection was erroneous, and he filed an action under Minn. Stat. § 204B.44 (2018) to correct the City's error. The district court granted the City's motion for summary judgment, and the court of appeals affirmed. Because we agree that city election officials did not err in using the SVRS to verify that Butler's petition met the statutory signature requirements, and because Butler did not meet his burden to prove that his petition met statutory requirements, we affirm.

         FACTS

         The City of Saint Paul is a home rule charter city. Minn. Const. art. XII, § 4 ("Any local government unit when authorized by law may adopt a home rule charter for its government."). Amendments to a city charter "may be proposed . . . by a petition of five percent of the voters of the local government unit as determined by law" and must be approved by a majority of voters. Minn. Const. art. XII, § 5. Butler and others gathered signatures in support of a petition to amend section 7.01 of the Saint Paul City Charter to move city elections from odd- to even-numbered years. See Saint Paul, Minn., City Charter § 7.01. To place a charter-amendment proposal 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" is required. Minn. Stat. § 410.12, subd. 1 (2018). The parties agree that Butler's petition needed 7, 011 signatures to reach the five-percent threshold.

         Butler's petition, which was submitted on July 7, 2017, to the Ramsey County Elections Office, contained 7, 656 signatures. Election officials used the SVRS to determine whether the petition contained a sufficient number of signatures. The SVRS "is the official record of registered voters." Minn. Stat. § 201.081, subd. 1(a) (2018). It is maintained by the secretary of state and lists the name and registration information of every legally registered voter in Minnesota. Minn. Stat. § 201.021 (2018). The SVRS is regularly updated with address-change information provided to the secretary of state. See Minn. Stat. § 201.13, subd. 3 (2018) (explaining that, in addition to the list of address changes from the United States Postal Service, the secretary of state may also regularly obtain lists from the Department of Public Safety of registered voters who have applied for a driver's license or state identification card with a different address). If a signer did not appear in the SVRS as registered to vote in Saint Paul, the City rejected that signature.

         Seven days after Butler submitted his petition, the Elections Office sent him a notice of petition insufficiency, informing him that 1, 790 of the signatures were invalid and that he had 10 days to file a supplementary petition with the 1, 145 additional signatures necessary to meet the statutory requirement. See Minn. Stat. § 410.12, subd. 3 (2018) (allowing a petitioner to submit a supplementary petition within 10 days after receiving notice of an insufficiency).

         Butler requested that the Elections Office provide a specific reason for the invalidity of each signature. As relevant here, the Elections Office explained that it rejected signatures from those who were not registered to vote in Saint Paul.[1]

         Butler did not file a supplementary petition within 10 days. Instead, he filed a petition in Ramsey County District Court under Minn. Stat. § 204B.44. Under section 204B.44, a party may file a petition with the district court to correct "any wrongful act, omission, or error of any . . . municipal clerk . . . or any other individual charged with any duty concerning an election." Minn. Stat. § 204B.44(a)(4). Butler asserted that the City erred by relying on the SVRS to invalidate signatures and in refusing to put his proposed charter amendment before the voters.[2]

         The parties engaged in discovery concerning the invalidated signatures. Following this process, the City reduced the number of rejected signatures to 1, 699, which left Butler's petition 1, ...


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