DFL bill easing absentee, early voting introduced at Capitol

Debating the voter ID question
In this photo taken Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, voter ID amendment supporter Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, right, debates with Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, an amendment opponent, at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul., Minn. Kiffmeyer said she didn't want to question the motives of Democrats, but she finds their post-election approach curious. Simon intends to assemble an omnibus bill, but said he is not sure it will be as big as the current Senate bill.
MPR Photo/Tom Campbell

On the heels of a failed Republican-backed constitutional amendment that would have required Minnesotans to present photo identification at the polls, Democrats in the Minnesota Senate have introduced legislation designed to make voting easier through early voting.

Under the proposed Senate omnibus elections bill, eligible Minnesota voters could begin casting their ballots 15 days before Election Day. The new early voting window would close on the Friday before the election.

The sweeping bill also would allow more people to vote by absentee ballot without having to state a reason why they can't vote in person at their neighborhood polling place on Election Day.

So far, however, the proposed election chances have yet to receive any Republican support, which could be the key to their becoming law. Even though Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, has said he will sign election bills only if they have bipartisan support.

The bill's chief author, state Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, told members of the Senate rules committee Monday that early voting would simplify the election system.

"Early voting saves costs for local election administrators, and I think it adds the convenience that Minnesotans want in terms of being able to vote at a time that is more convenient," Sieben said.

The so-called "no excuse" absentee voting in the bill would follow the same schedule currently in law and allow residents of more small cities to move to vote by mail.

Sen. Leroy Stumpf
Sen. Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, appears in a photo from April 2009. Stumpf said voters are busy people, and they want options. Democrats in the Minnesota Senate have introduced legislation designed to make voting easier through early voting.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

State Sen. Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said voters are busy people, and they want options.

"We need to think about the voters, and the options that they might be most comfortable with, in terms of how do you facilitate them to go and vote, rather than how can you make it so difficult that they don't want to vote," Stumpf said.

But Republicans have questioned whether early voting would violate the state constitution, which sets a specific date for elections. They've also raised concerns about adding more layers to the system. State Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson said he thinks the bill could confuse people.

"It begins to look to me like our system of voting is becoming pretty complicated -- not only for the folks who want to vote, but for the folks who are in the polling places and the auditor's offices and the election judges and the poll watchers," Newman said. "It's all complicated for them, too."

The DFL push for election law changes follows last fall's defeat of a Republican-backed constitutional amendment to require photo identification for voting. Newman was a chief sponsor of the amendment, along with state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake.

Kiffmeyer said she didn't want to question the motives of Democrats, but she finds their approach curious.

"[Democrats] won the election last year on current election law, and they also said 'it's great, everything's wonderful... Now we've got this big mama of an omnibus election bill, and I'm like, wow, what changed there?"

"They won the election last year on current election law, and they also said 'it's great, everything's wonderful,' " she said. "Now we've got this big mama of an omnibus election bill, and I'm like, wow, what changed there?"

Other provisions of the Senate bill would notify convicted felons of the status of their voting rights and move up Minnesota's August primary election to June beginning in 2016. The bill also would lower the threshold for triggering automatic, publicly funded recounts and require poll watchers to complete training.

Democrats in the House are considering similar election law changes, but so far they've remained as separate, stand-alone bills. State Rep. Steve Simon, chair of the House Elections Committee, said he intends to also assemble an omnibus bill. But Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, said he's not sure it will be as big as the current Senate bill.

"We are now heading into what will inevitably be a bargaining process of sorts," Simon said. "And by that I mean because of the governor's pledge to sign election legislation only if it has bipartisan support, it means there are cherished election initiatives on both sides that will either have to stand aside and not get done this year, or will get done as part of some overall deal."

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt has said Republicans will try to use the governor's election bill requirement as political leverage. Daudt, R-Crown, said he thinks election law changes should solve an actual problem and maintain the integrity of the system. Otherwise, he said, they will not receive any Republican votes.

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