Tax Levies and Leveraging Votes

Yaggie, et al. v. Schmidt and the Rothsay School Board Members: What Can Be Promised When Leveraging Votes?

The 2014 midterm elections just wrapped up, so this published Court of Appeals decision is very timely. In April 2013, after a failure of a bond referendum to finance a new K-12 building, the Board of Independent School District (ISD) 850 (“ISD”) sent a letter regarding a new referendum that essentially sated that ISD will not impose a previously passed $1,500 tax levy if the new referendum was passed. The letter used the word “promise” when stating it would not impose the levy. Following the letter, the referendum passed.

A complaint was filed by the residents claiming ISD violated Minn. Stat. § 211B.13, which states, among other things,

A person who willfully, directly or indirectly, advances, pays, gives, promises, or lends any money, food, liquor, clothing, entertainment, or other thing of monetary value, or who offers, promises, or endeavors to obtain any money, position, appointment, employment, or other valuable consideration, to or for a person, in order to induce a voter to refrain from voting, or to vote in a particular way, at an election, is guilty of a felony. This section does not prevent a candidate from stating publicly preference for or support of another candidate to be voted for at the same primary or election. Refreshments of food or nonalcoholic beverages having a value up to $5 consumed on the premises at a private gathering or public meeting are not prohibited under this section.

The homeowners focused on the fact that the letter used the word “promise” and so does the statute. However, the court stated that the letter could have easily omitted the word “promise” and merely stated “the $1,500 excess levy, which the respondents will not use if the referendum is successful.”

The Court continues and states that the legislature’s intent behind § 211B.13 is to “prohibit the buying of votes, with case or with anything else, in accord with the state’s legitimate interest in upholding the integrity of the electoral process itself.” In applying that interpretation the Court found that ISD was not buying or attempting to buy votes and was only informing voters of the tax consequences and furthermore, the Court found that the letter was protected by the First Amendment.

Additionally, the Court held that ISD had a statutory obligation to inform voters of the consequences of failure to pass the new referendum pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 123B.71.