Members of groups making up the Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition hold boxes of petition signatures in the air for a photograph before delivering the signatures to the city clerk in Minneapolis on April 30. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News

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Updated Friday, September 17, 11:30 a.m.: On Thursday night, just hours before early voting in the Minneapolis election began, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that voting on the public safety charter amendment question can go forward. The decision overturns Hennepin County Judge Jamie Anderson’s earlier decisions to block the question from the ballot. For more information on what’s in the public safety amendment, check out our FAQ here.

Supporters of the Minneapolis charter amendment that would overhaul public safety and eliminate the requirement for a minimum number of police officers say they’re feeling demoralized following Tuesday’s ruling by Hennepin County Judge Jamie Anderson. The ruling, her third in less than a month on the issue, strikes down the ballot language and may keep the question from going to voters.

The debate over how to change policing in Minneapolis has been a fraught and passionate one. And now, with early voting beginning on Friday, September 17, the matter has come down to the wire.

The situation is giving Robin Wonsley Worlobah* a sense of deja vu. Five years ago, the Minnesota Supreme Court kept a $15 minimum wage Minneapolis charter amendment from being on the ballot. Wonsley Worlobah was a lead organizer for the 15 Now coalition and said she sees parallels today.

“This is voter suppression,” said Wonsley Worlobah, currently a candidate for Minneapolis City Council in Ward 2. “It’s even impacting the people who want to vote no.”

The current charter amendment language, which was approved last week in an emergency meeting by the Minneapolis City Council, would replace the police department with a broader public safety department. The language was rewritten on the fly after a previous ruling by Judge Anderson in order to meet county ballot printing deadlines.

After Judge Anderson’s latest ruling, in which she called the ballot language “unreasonable and misleading,” the amendment could still appear on the ballot, but it would be deemed invalid. Voters would receive a note with their ballots telling them not to vote on the amendment. 

The situation could change yet again if the Minnesota Supreme Court overturns Judge Anderson’s latest ruling. The court agreed on Wednesday to grant the matter an emergency hearing. The hope is that the court will rule before early voting begins. (On Thursday, September 16, the court ruled that elections officials don’t have to provide a note with ballots. It hasn’t yet ruled on the amendment language.)

Supporters of the amendment expressed a range of emotions to Sahan Journal, from frustration to anger to disbelief to optimism.

JaNaé Bates, a minister and spokesperson for Yes 4 Minneapolis, the coalition that gathered signatures and initiated the amendment in the first place, called the process so far “horrendous.”

“I’m definitely feeling some righteous anger,” Bates said. “The fact of the matter is that the people of Minneapolis, the legislators, the organizations, the small businesses, they did everything the right way. They did everything through the democratic process.”

The hurdles date back to last year, when the City Council approved a similar amendment to the Minneapolis charter, which is akin to a constitution, for the fall 2020 election. Ultimately, that amendment was blocked by the city’s Charter Commission. 

The current legal challenge was brought by former City Council member Don Samuels, nonprofit executive Sondra Samuels, and developer Bruce Dachis. They maintain that they are pushing for clear, understandable wording of the amendment on the ballot. Previously, the Samuelses and others successfully sued the city of Minneapolis over what they called inadequate policing levels. Judge Anderson ruled in that case as well, ordering the city to hire enough officers to meet the standard spelled out in the charter. 

Despite all the setbacks, Bates said efforts to keep the amendment from going forward prove the opposition is fearful that voters will approve the proposal. And, there is still a chance they’ll get the opportunity to do so. “The power of people’s voices through the ballot box is so powerful, and this is a clear indication,” Bates said. “They’re so scared that they want to take away that power completely.”

D.A. Bullock, a local filmmaker and spokesperson for Reclaim the Block, which is part of the Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition, said efforts from the Charter Commission and Judge Anderson to keep the amendment off the ballot are the type of actions that lead people to lose faith in the political system.

“When we play by the rules and do so-called reform the right way, the standard way, we still receive significant pushback,” Bullock said. “This leads everyone to believe that the fix is in. That’s the thing that really erodes trust in our institutions.”

Bullock pointed to City Charter amendments in previous Minneapolis elections that he said were broad and vague but did not draw nearly as much pushback. During the 2013 election, for example, voters overwhelmingly approved a charter amendment that asked voters to “modernize the Charter” and “redraft its provisions for brevity and in plain language.”

“That didn’t receive a challenge in court,” Bullock said. “This is a specific tactic. It’s a way to protect the Minneapolis Police Department. It also speaks to phony talk of reform.”  

Even so, Bullock said, following through on the process “is a must.” 

City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who supports the charter amendment and last year voted for the similar proposal that the Charter Commission nixed from the ballot, said that while the current fight over public safety “might just be a small, local example,” it could have larger consequences by impacting voters’ faith in the political process.

“If people are not allowed to vote on this in November, it might be a sign of how far we really are from a legitimate democratic process,” Ellison said. “To the most cynical person who says, ‘Voting doesn’t matter,’ this signals to them that they’re right.”

Wonsley Worlobah recalls how the 15 Now coalition didn’t have luck with the Charter Commission or through the courts. But she emphasized that even through the losses, the coalition was able to build enough support to eventually get the City Council to pass a $15 minimum wage law in 2017.

She sees similar openings for Yes 4 Minneapolis, even if the Supreme Court rules against putting the question on the ballot. “The charter amendment process in itself is a great organizing tool,” she said. “It’s a great way to build public support and build coalitions.”

*Clarification: This piece has been updated to include Robin Wonsley Worlobah’s full name.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...