Sharp divide over election law changes at Minnesota Capitol

People stand at voter booths.
Voters cast their ballots mid-day at Believer Fellowship Church in Moorhead, Minn., on Nov. 3, 2020.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News 2020

House Democrats and Senate Republicans are presenting sharply different visions for the way Minnesota elections should work. 

Democrats want to expand voter registration and make it easier for Minnesotans to vote by mail. Republicans want to establish a photo ID requirement to vote, even though Minnesotans rejected that idea eight years ago.

Democracy was tested in 2020, with an election conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic and what she describes as “a climate of disinformation,” according to Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis, who said it required a herculean effort by local election judges and others to keep the election safe and secure. 

Greenman told members of the House state government committee Thursday that there are still shortcomings in the system that she hopes to address in a wide-ranging elections bill.

“The pandemic exposed some of the cracks, the inefficiencies, the disparities in our voting system,” Greenman said. “We also learned things about what voters liked and the things that worked and ways we could modernize and standardize our processes about how Minnesotans are casting their ballot and how we're administering elections.”

Greenman’s bill would establish an automatic voter registration process, allow 16 and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote and create a permanent absentee ballot list. A witness requirement for absentee voting would be eliminated. The bill would also allow convicted felons to vote after release from prison, and there would be increased transparency in campaign spending.

State Attorney General Keith Ellison, a Democrat, testified in support of provisions aimed at stopping election-related intimidation and deceptive practices.

“Expressly giving the attorney general’s office civil enforcement will allow us to act swiftly to enforce Minnesota’s voter protection laws and protect democracy,” Ellison said.

The DFL approach in the House is much different from the one Republicans in the Senate are taking. A Senate committee this week approved a bill that would require Minnesotans to show a photo ID before they can vote. 

If that sounds familiar, it’s because Republicans put a voter ID requirement on the ballot as a constitutional amendment in 2012, and voters rejected it. 

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said his bill that revives the idea would strengthen people’s faith in the system.

“It’s to protect the integrity of the Minnesota election process, so that those citizens who have properly voted will not be disenfranchised by votes illegally cast and counted,” Newman said.

With two different parties controlling the House and Senate and two such different approaches to conducting elections, the chances one bill or the other becoming law this year is not good, especially since the Legislature has had an unofficial policy of not adopting changes to election laws that don’t have bipartisan support. 

That notion of voter fraud came up during discussion in the House committee as well, on a separate proposal also aimed at improving voter access. 

The measure would add medical bills to credit-card statements, rent or mortgage payments, and utility bills to the list of documents voters can use to prove residency for same-day registration.  

Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, opposed the measure, arguing that medical bills don’t always reflect an accurate address of residency.

“My concern is that this opens the door to potential fraud,” Nash said.

Rep. Duane Quam, R- Byron, said voter fraud is a legitimate concern. 

“I’m just disappointed that in this time when a large portion of the population has concerns that we aren’t instead increasing our verification, our checks and balances to give our citizens higher confidence in our system,” Quam said.

But DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon told committee members that the allegations made by Quam and others about voter fraud are simply not true. He stressed that occurrences of voter fraud are miniscule.

“Those are the facts, and sometimes facts are inconvenient, and they’re stubborn,” Simon said. “But those are the facts.”

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