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Court orders Gauthier name replaced on ballot

ST. PAUL -- Duluth Democrats are breathing a sigh of relief after the Minnesota Supreme Court ordered state Rep. Kerry Gauthier's name replaced on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Tuesday's order means Erik Simonson will not be forced to run as a write-in candidate, a change that enhances his chances in a state House race with a Republican and a write-in candidate. Few write-in Minnesota candidates have won races against candidates whose names were on the ballot.

Simonson, who had begun a write-in campaign complete with signs around House District 7B, welcomed Tuesday's ballot decision, saying, "It's a good day."

Simonson will face Republican Travis Silvers, whose name will be on the ballot, and Duluth City Councilor Jay Fosle, who is running a write-in campaign.

Silvers said Tuesday's ruling was "disappointing."

"It's legislating from the bench and rewriting the laws," Silvers said. "I think (the ruling) highlights the need for change even more."

Fosle said anger over the last-minute ruling could turn things in his favor.

"This action by the Supreme Court should send a strong message to all the citizens as to how much our government is broken," Fosle said in a statement. "They cannot even stick to their own state statutes."

He said there's likely no time to file a protest over the ruling and he will focus on continuing his write-in campaign.

"I'm not a quitter," he said. "When I get in campaign mode no one works harder."

He said he thinks the electorate is well aware of the unusual circumstances of the race after news broke about Gauthier and his eventual departure from the race. Now, with Simonson on the ballot, he will run alone as a write-in.

"I want to take the high road," Fosle said. "I just wish we both had to play the game fair."

Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party leaders and Simonson said they brought the legal action to ensure that voters understood who actually is running.

"Our first priority throughout this process has been ensuring a fair election for the people of District 7B in Duluth," House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

Thissen and DFL Chairman Ken Martin said they are confident Simonson will win.

"We are glad to learn that the Minnesota Supreme Court agrees that Duluth voters should have a chance to choose between the endorsed candidates of the major parties -- a choice that Minnesotans in every other district in the state will have on Election Day," Martin said.

The high court order written by Chief Justice Lori S. Gildea said that Simonson's name should replace Gauthier's. In the interest of time, she said that she filed the order Tuesday, but delayed an explanation of the ruling.

The ruling grants a request filed by Simonson and the DFL Party when Gauthier announced he would end his re-election campaign after a rest-stop sex encounter with a 17-year-old male earlier this summer was revealed.

House District 7B Democrats revoked their earlier endorsement of Gauthier, replacing it with a Simonson endorsement. The state deadline for withdrawing from a race passed long ago, but Gildea ordered St. Louis County Auditor Don Dicklich to accept Gauthier's withdrawal and print new ballots with Simonson's name.

Dicklich's office began to mail out absentee ballots Friday, as state law requires, with Gauthier's name.

John Kavanagh of Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's office Tuesday night said details of the Supreme Court order remain to be worked out, including what happens to any absentee votes already cast in the race. In 2002, the courts allowed some voters to cast new ballots after U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash days before the election.

Dicklich said he will try to get new ballots to those already sent previous ones, but said he is not sure what to do about voters who have gone to Duluth City Hall to vote absentee.

"We need to talk to the city about that," he said.

To get the new ballots out quickly, elections officials may use what the state calls "unofficial ballots" with Simonson's name until Dicklich's office can provide official documents that meet all state standards, Kavanagh said.

About 30,000 ballots with Gauthier's name have been printed, with 28 mailed to overseas voters, Dicklich said.

"We waited as long as we could," he said. "I'm disappointed it took (the court) so long to come up with this ruling."

Dicklich said printing new ballots and reprogramming voting machines with Simonson's name on it will cost taxpayers $20,000 to $22,000.

Simonson said it would have made no sense to issue ballots bearing Gauthier's name as the DFL-endorsed candidate after he officially dropped out of the race.

He said the amended ballots will better serve the public good because "it shows people the choice they actually have."

Now that his name will appear on the ballot, Simonson said: "We're going to shift our strategy. We can move away from education. It will give us more of an opportunity to focus on the issues."

News Tribune staff writers Brandon Stahl and Peter Passi contributed to this report.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.