GOP lawmakers irked by DFL vote by mail strategy

People line up in front of a voting sign.
People line up to vote early inside of the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis on Friday, Jan. 17.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Democrats in the Minnesota House are poised to push forward a vote-by-mail option for the 2020 election despite strong opposition from Republicans.

The proposal to allow for a temporary expansion of mail-in ballots, which supporters contend would help protect voters’ health during the COVID-19 pandemic, is scheduled to come up next week in the House Ways and Means Committee.

“Every Minnesotan deserves to cast their ballot safely, so we think mail-in balloting is an essential,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.

The House State Government Finance Committee advanced an elections bill Thursday on an 11-7  party line vote that Democrats and Republicans had negotiated. The bill allows more time this year for local officials to designate polling places. Health care workers would be allowed to help with absentee voting in nursing homes and other care facilities and local officials would get more time to process absentee ballots.

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The bill does not include an expansion of voting by mail. Still, Republicans on the committee opposed it because of DFL moves behind the scenes to advance the alternate election bill.

Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said the bill had been a compromise but now Democrats clearly have another agenda.

“I’m very disappointed that people who were not involved in the negotiations just decided to snap their fingers and change everything,” Nash said.

Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, accused DFL leaders of breaking with the tradition of bipartisan election bills.

“I’m a bit concerned about the intentions of the majority in the House,” Albright said.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said he understands the disappointment of Republicans, even though he supports an expansion of voting by mail.

Simon, a Democrat, urged committee members to approve the negotiated bill and not get hung up on the one expected next week.

“This is a thoroughly negotiated, thoroughly bipartisan compromise, which I support because it’s something that can actually get enacted into law and give Minnesotans comfort at a time of a pandemic,” Simon said.

House Democrats have the votes to pass whatever kind of election bill they want. But the Republican-controlled Senate stands in the way.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, says he strongly opposes an expansion of voting by mail. He is concerned about the potential for voter fraud.

Gazelka noted that his caucus recently set aside a proposed photo ID requirement for voting.

“I am very concerned about election integrity and making sure that every vote is legitimate,” Gazelka.