Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Room for improvement

Ruling on Greenwood electioneering shows weak spot in campaign law

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A decision issued this week by the Office of Administrative Hearings raises questions about whether Minnesota’s campaign laws could use some updating. As we report in this issue, an administrative law judge with the OAH dismissed a complaint against former Greenwood Town Clerk Ellen Trancheff who has been under fire for allegedly distributing campaign material for herself and another candidate while handing out absentee ballot applications as part of her official duties for the recent township election.

While the judge concluded that such behavior, if true, is “highly objectionable,” she determined that, at least in Minnesota, it isn’t against the law.

It darn well should be.

It’s one of those things that most people would rightly assume would be covered in the state’s election law. After all, the notion that a public official would take advantage of their authority and responsibility to oversee an election in order to tip the scales to their advantage shocks the conscience— as the administrative law judge suggested. While a candidate can certainly distribute absentee ballot applications to potential supporters, along with campaign materials, public officials charged with overseeing elections should be engaged in such campaigning on their own time, not while on the job. Certainly, not while handing out absentee ballot applications from the town hall, as alleged here.

While this complaint to the OAH was dismissed, it still serves a valuable public purpose by exposing a potential loophole in the law. Very often, it is precisely such complaints that expose weaknesses or oversights, and which can help prompt the Legislature to amend the law appropriately. It wasn’t long ago that this newspaper’s quest for access to a school construction subcontract, which ultimately failed at the Supreme Court, prompted the Legislature to unanimously amend the state’s public information law to ensure that the public would have access to such contracts in the future.

That’s the nature of the law. It’s constantly evolving, based on the cases that come before entities like the OAH or the courts, and the manner in which the Legislature responds to their rulings. Statutes inevitably fall short since it’s difficult, if not impossible, to envision every potential behavior or act that the Legislature might seek to regulate.

In this instance, common sense would lead most people to view the alleged acts in Greenwood as improper. But that’s not the same as illegal. And when it comes to criminal statutes, judges have to read the law narrowly, as the administrative law judge did in this case.

It’s a case that should prompt the Legislature to take notice. The state’s election law could use a tweak or two.

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