'It's a really big deal': Secretary Simon on the voting bill, registration and upcoming elections

A man speaks to the press
Secretary of State Steve Simon speaks at a press conference in support of bill which seeks to restore voting rights to previously incarcerated residents, at the Minnesota State Capitol on Feb. 21.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill supporters are calling the “Democracy for the People Act” into law Friday. DFL lawmakers say it will “protect and strengthen the freedom to vote.” All Things Considered host Tom Crann spoke with Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon about what the law does.

Hear the full interview using the audio player above, or read a transcript of it below. Both have been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

What does the law do?

It’s a really, really big deal. Bills like this only come around about once every half century. I'd say the last time we had one this big was 1973, almost to the day, when Minnesota passed same day or election day voter registration.

There are a couple of really big sort of headliner items. One is something called automatic voter registration. It's not automatic in the sense, real human beings are still doing the gatekeeping and the filtering and the screening, so that's good.

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What it does mean is that, for example, if you go and get or renew a driver's license, the system will presume that if you're not registered to vote that you wish to be and you will then be placed in the pile, to see if you are in fact eligible to vote.

Tell us a little more about how that will work and be policed?

So it is not a new thing for the state of Minnesota to issue driver's licenses to those who are ineligible to vote. My own mother, for 30 plus years, was a green card holder and a Minnesota driver's license holder.

And in the case of undocumented immigrants, because the legislature also passed a bill and the governor signed into law to allow drivers, the natural question is, “Hey, wait a minute, are you going to have undocumented people automatically registered?”

It’s very sensible question, and the answer is no. The Department of Public Safety has vast experience going back decades with people like my mother. And what that means is that no one will even be put in the pile that could possibly be automatically registered, you won't even get to that pile, unless there has been some demonstration of U.S. citizenship.

Does this mean that the next time I renew my driver's license that I am re registering to vote?

If you're already registered, there would be no effect. If, however, you had an address change or a name change, for example, you would be re registered to reflect that new information. And I think the key thing is here, anyone can opt out.

Let's talk about 16 and 17-year-olds, there's pre registration now. But that does not mean they will accidentally be allowed to vote, right? How will that work?

Correct. Here's what hasn't changed, you can only register to vote and of course vote when you're 18. Pre registration means a high school student could fill out the paperwork and if everything checks out, if a real human being filters in screens and checks and they are who they say they are, and they live where they say they live, then automatically on their 18th birthday, they would be registered to vote.

Why did we need the pre registration for teens? What's behind that?

I think part of it is not every teen gets a driver's license. And there's more and more evidence these days that teens are waiting until their 20s to get driver's licenses. We know that when young people vote in the first election that they're eligible, they are much more likely to make it a lifelong habit.

Over the past few decades changes to voting laws here in Minnesota have been traditionally bipartisan, but this was not. There were some security and integrity concerns from Republicans. What's your message about the concerns?

The provisions in this bill are nonpartisan in origin and nonpartisan in effect. They have been implemented in red states, blue states and in purple states. And let me give you just one quick example. My colleague in Louisiana, he's a conservative Republican. I am very much not. But he not only has preregistration for 16 and 17-year-olds, he wrote a letter at my request for committee members in the House and Senate, attesting to the fact that they love this in Louisiana.

He stands by it, he thinks it's great and he's as conservative of a Republican as they come. That is but one example of the many provisions in this bill — which are really from a policy standpoint — totally nonpartisan. They don't put the thumb on the scale for any political party or any candidate.

This law criminalizes voter intimidation. How will that be enforced?

Well, it's a high bar and it should be because everyone has a First Amendment right to say or believe anything they want. The very high bar in this bill is that if a person says something about elections that the person knows to be false, and that's critical piece, does it with the intention of impeding another person's access to the ballot box, that would now be a gross misdemeanor.

Give us an example.

A few years ago, there was someone putting out information saying, “Hey, everyone in Milwaukee, Election Day on Tuesday is only for people whose last names are A through L. If you're M through Z, the election is over, stay home.” So that kind of thing would be within this new law.

When does it go into effect?

So June 1 Is the presumptive date that everything goes into effect. But with automatic voter registration, the law is written in a way that gives us at the office of Secretary of State the final power to certify that we're system ready to do it. But we expect that to be done well in advance of the 2024 election.