In Duluth case, court says voters entitled to accurate ballot

Voters should have an accurate ballot, the Minnesota Supreme Court said Tuesday in releasing its reason for switching candidates in a Duluth legislative race.

“Given the paramount interests of voters, who are entitled to a ballot that accurately identifies the candidates actually running for office,” high court justices wrote, it was only fair to replace Rep. Kerry Gauthier’s name with that of Erik Simonson.

The Tuesday opinion on the state House 7B race backs up a brief ruling the court handed down on Sept. 25.

In July, Democrat Gauthier and a teen-age boy had a sexual encounter in a Duluth-area rest stop. The Duluth News Tribune revealed the incident nearly a month later, setting in motion public discussions that eventually led to Gauthier trying to withdraw from the race and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party nominating Simonson to replace him.

Simonson won the Nov. 6 election and takes office early next month.

The Supreme Court delivered its ruling Sept. 25 so voters would know far enough in advance about the change, delaying release of the opinion with its reasoning until Tuesday.

The court criticized St. Louis County Auditor Don Dicklich for not accepting Gauthier’s withdrawal.

“Based on its wording and grammatical structure, this (state law) provision indicates that both partisan and nonpartisan candidates can create a vacancy in nomination in two ways — by dying or by filing an affidavit of withdrawal,” the unsigned Supreme Court opinion said.

Dicklich and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie had argued that under Minnesota law September was months too late for a legislative candidate to withdraw.

“We further hold that the county auditor erred when he rejected the affidavit of withdrawal that Gauthier attempted to file,” the court said.

The court said the Ritchie and Dicklich “interpretation has the potential to lead to an absurd result.” For example, the court said, there could be multiple elections for a seat because if a candidate is not allowed to withdraw, “a special election immediately becomes necessary to allow voters to once again choose their elected representative.”

The court backed the DFL and Simonson claim that they acted quickly to replace Gauthier.

“They contend that at most less than one week elapsed between the date on which Gauthier submitted his affidavit of withdrawal (Sept. 6) and the date on which petitioners sought relief in this court (Sept. 10),” the court opinion said. “On this point, petitioners are correct.”

The court also said that Gauthier attempted to follow the law to withdraw from the race: “Gauthier filed his affidavit more than 16 days before the general election, and he filed it with the county auditor. The DFL then attempted to file a certificate of nomination naming Simonson as the party’s newly  nominated candidate for District 7B.”

State laws give major political parties have the authority to fill a vacancy, the court said.

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