Democrats see ‘mandate’ to rewrite election laws

Voters in line
Voters walk with their ballots in a polling place at Farview Recreation Center in Minneapolis on Nov. 8.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

After Minnesota voters handed DFLers control of the House, Senate and governor’s office, lawmakers who are set to lead election and voting committees at the Capitol said they’ll try to advance policies that had long hit a dead-end in the divided Capitol.

That means plans to restore the right to vote to people convicted of felonies who’ve served their jail sentences, expand mail-in voting options and automatically register more young people to vote could have new life in the Legislature in 2023.

Efforts to cast light on dark money coming into political campaigns and set up a statewide ranked-choice voting system could also come up for consideration.

“We ran on democracy and voters and so did Republicans,” said Rep. Emma Greenman, a Minneapolis Democrat set to serve as vice chair of the House Elections Committee. “And so what I'm really excited about is I think we have the opportunity to do some urgent and overdue work. And I think we have a mandate from voters to do it this year.”

In her last term, Greenman carried a sweeping proposal that would make many of the changes DFL lawmakers have prioritized, but opposition from Republicans doomed it.

With the DFL in control of both chambers, Greenman said she’s hopeful that the initiative, along with plans to rewrite the state’s campaign finance laws and add protections for election workers, could have a better shot.

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“We're going to do those things with a pro-democracy majority,” Greenman said. “I hope to find colleagues across the aisle because I think it's good for Republican voters and Democratic voters and independent voters. But my test, and I think our test, will be, ‘Is this good for Minnesota voters? Does it empower Minnesota voters?’ And that's where we need to go.”

A portrait of a woman in a maroon jacket
Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis, will be the vice chair of the House Elections Committee in the 2023 session.
Courtesy of the Minnesota House of Representatives

The plans might have a smoother path forward but they’re still likely to face opposition from Republicans. GOP lawmakers said the Legislature should focus on restoring trust in elections by requiring photo identification to cast a ballot and implementing provisional balloting.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, of Hanska, will serve as GOP lead on the House Elections Committee, and he worried that the DFL proposals could reduce faith in Minnesota elections instead of bolstering it.

“You know, in some areas, we see when the majority flips one side or the other, we'll try to undo what the previous majority has done,” he said. “And I would hope that we avoid that sort of scenario. I think elections need to be stable and predictable. We shouldn't be bouncing back and forth with policy changes that are politically driven.”

Incoming Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said Republicans would consider each of the DFL-proposed changes but said he wanted to see guardrails that would ensure that only those eligible to vote can cast a ballot.

“We still need the security and the faith in our system. We need people that believe in democracy, that what they are doing matters,” Johnson said. “But we also need to have them participate. And so making sure there's safeguards, but making sure that we're getting people out to vote.”

Historically, there has been an unofficial rule at the Capitol that election law changes should get the thumbs up from both parties to pass. And Sen. Jim Carlson, the incoming chair of the Senate Elections Committee, said that’s still his aim.

“It would be the goal, but not the mandate,” the Eagan DFLer said. “What I want to try to do is even kind of force people to work together a little bit more and I'm going to do that with some priority assignments.”

After six years of getting shut out under GOP leadership on the Senate panel, Carlson said he wants to do things differently.

A man with glasses smiles at the camera
Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL- Eagan, will chair the Senate Elections Committee in the 2023 session.
Courtesy Minnesota Senate

Carlson said bills with support from both parties would get considered first in the committee. And those with an author spot left empty for the minority party would be second tier. The goal would be to win over a member of the opposite party before a bill comes up for discussion, he said.

He said he’s also leaving the option open to move partisan bills if stalemates emerge. And given frequent campaign comments from Republicans casting doubt on the 2020 election and the state’s election systems, he said he’s prepared to do that.

“We're not going to walk away from anything. We're not going to just use our majority to force things through unless it becomes absolutely necessary,” he said. 

Roughly one in four Republican candidates who ran for the Legislature denied the result of the 2020 election or raised questions about its validity. Twenty-two of those candidates were elected to office and will now compose about 10 percent of the overall Legislature.

Even with the DFL in control at the Capitol, some observers said they’re not holding their breath for big election law changes in 2023.

Common Cause Minnesota Executive Director Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera said narrow DFL margins could also doom election law changes.

“Now that the Democrats have the House and the Senate, wow, easy peasy, we're just going to roll with all of these reforms, that's not going to be the case,” Belladonna-Carrera said. “There are still intra-caucus dynamics, there is over-promising. And only five months in the legislative session.”