National voting rights clashes color debate over Minnesota election law proposals

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Stephen Montemayor, Star Tribune
·4 min read
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The national political clash over voting laws and election integrity is still looming over the divided Minnesota Legislature, as vastly different sets of election policy priorities advanced on Wednesday.

Democratic proposals to restore felon voting rights and automatically register voters are moving in the DFL-led House, while Republicans in the Senate cited ongoing fraud concerns in their push for a sweeping elections bill that included new restrictions on same-day voter registration in Minnesota.

Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat, is sounding the alarm that the GOP proposal would "essentially dismantle" same-day voter registration, which he credited with helping Minnesota maintain the nation's top voter turnout.

"It is part of a trend that we're seeing across the country," said Simon. "This is in the family of bills that include the restrictions in Georgia, the restrictions in Texas and the restrictions in other states emanating seemingly from disinformation about the 2020 election. It is disturbing that this bill would seek to put Minnesota in that category."

Under the Republican proposal, unregistered voters can still vote on Election Day but must cast provisional ballots that would be set aside for a week for election judges to determine their eligibility. Voters whose eligibility is challenged would need to appear in person to prove that they are authorized to vote.

"I want all Minnesotans to be encouraged to participate each election cycle, regardless of party, and the way to do that is to make voting easily accessible while maintaining the extremely important integrity of our elections," said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, a former secretary of state and Big Lake Republican who chairs the Senate committee, in a statement after Wednesday's vote.

Minnesota is one of just three states without provisional balloting. Kiffmeyer believes that's one of several measures needed to ensure voter confidence and transparency in elections. DFL opponents argue that provisional balloting would depress turnout by introducing additional hurdles to the voting process.

"Minnesota's history has always been about moving forward and making the election system more accessible to more people," said Simon, whose 2022 reelection campaign cited opposition to the GOP bill in a Wednesday fundraising email. "This would definitely take us backward."

The House DFL's state government and elections bill includes a longtime Democratic priority to restore voting rights to people still on probation for felony convictions.

It would also create automatic voter registration for those who are approved for new or renewed driver's licenses or identification cards or apply for benefits or services to a state agency. Applicants can opt out of automatic voter registration under the proposal.

But state Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said Wednesday that "there's no support for that bill from the GOP," adding that election law proposals are becoming more partisan in recent years in a departure from a long-standing custom.

In the Senate, the GOP election package also ends the process of "vouching" where registered voters can affirm another voter's eligibility under oath. The bill would also require a legislative audit of election equipment and software.

Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, on Wednesday said citing voting fraud concerns in proposing new restrictions is "trying to attack a problem here that really doesn't exist."

"It also promotes the incorrect idea that we have problems with the voters in Minnesota," Carlson said. "We have very, very few issues that have been brought to the courts and across the nation."

Simon meanwhile is still optimistic that lawmakers can find common ground on more technical changes such as permanently giving election workers 14 days to count early ballots received before Election Day. That was temporarily increased from seven amid an expected surge in mail voting last year.

Those and other more technical changes may stand a greater chance of passage than the respective major policy changes being pushed by each party that lack bipartisan support. According to Nash, such one-sided bills "are actually advancing the partisanship in Minnesota around elections."

"It's turning people who are dedicated voters that truly are kind of those middle of the road people and it's turning them off," Nash said. "And its taking the antithetical ends of the political spectrum and only making them more strident in their beliefs."

Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755

Twitter: @smontemayor