Simon calls for election worker protections, automatic voter registration

A person hits a gavel at a podium
Secretary of State Steve Simon gavels in the Minnesota House of Representatives during the first day of the 2023 Legislative session, Jan. 3 in St. Paul. Now Simon is proposing a number of election law changes designed to make it easier for Minnesotans to vote.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Secretary of State Steve Simon on Monday urged lawmakers to green light a slate of election law changes designed to help more Minnesotans cast ballots and to ensure the safety of election workers.

Among them were plans to set up an automatic voter registration program, restore the right to vote to people convicted of a felony who complete their jail or prison sentence, allow 16-and-17-year-olds to pre-register to vote and set in place gross misdemeanor charges for harassing or intimidating election workers.

The requests came after Simon, a DFLer, won a third term in November and was the top vote-getter in the state. He said voters sent a clear message to the Legislature that they trust Minnesota’s elections and want to make it easier for people to vote.

“They spoke loudly and clearly,” Simon said. “They sent us a message and they gave us direction to build on our Minnesota success story as a leader in elections and voting, to further expand access, to erase disparities and to continue to innovate.”

Those proposals will likely have a friendlier audience at the Capitol now that Democrats control the House, Senate and governor’s office. DFL lawmakers days earlier put forward pieces of the plan Simon recommended. And they said that others would be forthcoming this legislative session.

“We all believe that our democracy works best when all voices are heard,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said Friday. “And you will see us moving legislation this session to ensure that more voices are heard at the ballot box and that young people have easy access to develop, and that those people who have paid their debt to society get a chance to be part of the voting population.”

Gain a Better Understanding of Today

MPR News is not just a listener supported source of information, it's a resource where listeners are supported. We take you beyond the headlines to the world we share in Minnesota. Become a sustainer today to fuel MPR News all year long.

About 34 DFL lawmakers said last week they’d formed a new democracy caucus that was set to expand access to the ballot box and to combat disinformation about Minnesota elections.

Republicans aren’t as willing to get on board.

Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, the ranking member on the Senate Elections Committee, said Friday that the proposals were likely wouldn’t pick up GOP support.

“Minnesota has long-standing practice of only changing election laws on a bipartisan basis,” Koran said, “and the fact that my colleagues across the aisle are more interested in passing their hyper-partisan wish lists than they are in finding common ground on our elections is a disservice to all voters.”

DFL lawmakers and Simon said they wouldn’t be discouraged by Republican opposition.

“That's certainly not going to be our litmus test,” Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis, said of the idea that election law changes must have bipartisan support. “It's going to be what Minnesota voters want.”

The proposals to restore the vote to those convicted of a felony after they serve out their time behind bars, put in place an automatic voter registration system and pre-register teenagers to vote have been adopted in Republican and Democratic states.

Minnesotans currently unable to vote due to being on probation or parole said a change could help them reconnect with their communities.

“Every single year while I'm helping to drive thousands to the polls, I'm not able to hold up that little red sticker that says, ‘I voted,’” said Elizer Darris, co-director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund. “We're calling upon the Legislature and the governor to pass the bill, and to sign the bill and to open up democracy for all of us so that we can all be part of this wonderful democratic experience fully and wholly.”

The Minnesota Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the law prohibiting felons who are still on supervised release from voting but has yet to issue a ruling. Striking the law could allow 50,000 people to vote.

Simon said another 450,000 Minnesotans could be added to the voter rolls if the state starts an automatic registration system. The new system would pre-register a person to vote when they apply for a driver’s or hunting license or access state programs.

Following the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol and more frequent reports of threats to election workers, Simon said the state should also create new penalties for those who obstruct access to election offices or intimidate them. Four states have implemented similar penalties.

“It takes 30,000 Minnesotans to step up and stand up and be election judges in their polling places on election day,” Simon said. “They serve on the front lines of our democracy and increasingly they face threats and intimidation just for doing their work. That is unacceptable. And we need to make it clear that this behavior is not tolerated anywhere in Minnesota.”