Voter sign-up bill causes partisan split in MN Legislature

People wait in a line to vote
Voters waited for the polls to open at the Kaposia Education Center in South St. Paul on Election Day 2022. Precinct 5 is the largest in Dakota County and nearly 40 people lined up outside the school this morning to cast their ballots.
Tim Nelson | MPR News 2022

Minnesota could join a growing roster of states to pre-register 16-year-olds so they're prepared to vote upon turning 18. It’s one element of a voting and elections bill that took steps ahead in Minnesota's Legislature this week.

Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis, said her bill “strengthens the freedom to vote by modernizing and expanding voter registration.”

In addition to pre-registering more teens, the bill also would update voter registration for U.S. citizens when they get a new Minnesota driver’s license or complete other government forms with a new name or address. People could opt out of the automatic registration.

The House Elections Finance and Policy Committee approved the bill on an 8-5 party-line vote Wednesday. A companion bill made it through the Senate elections committee earlier this week, also with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. Debate over both bills also encompassed proposed changes to campaign finance disclosure by outside groups.

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In the House hearing, Rep. Pam Altendorf, R-Red Wing, questioned the idea of advance registration for those years from voting eligibility.

“Why are we opening this up for more questioning, more scrutiny, people not feeling like this is secure? And we are opening this up to 16-year-olds who again cannot enter into a legal agreement and now we're pre-registering them to vote,” Altendorf said.

Rep. Kristin Bahner, DFL-Maple Grove, drew a distinction.

“Putting you on the list does not mean you aren't necessarily going to be registered to vote until you turn age 18,” she said. “But getting folks in the practice of getting ready to engage in their civic duty is really incredibly patriotic.” 

More than a dozen states permit 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote.

Minnesota already allows 17-year-olds who will turn 18 by Election Day access to a pending list of registered voters.

A man speaks in front of microphones
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon addresses media at a voting machine demonstration in Brooklyn Park, Minn. on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Secretary of State Steve Simon, a DFLer, told the committee the slate of proposed changes would reduce registrations at polling places, although that same-day registration option would remain.

“But I understand, just as a matter of reality, that there are some people in this room that have misgivings about it. If you do, this is the bill for you because it would probably cut 80 to 90 percent of same-day voter registrations,” Simon said. “And whether you have misgivings or not, same-day voter registrations are somewhat of a hiccup in the polling place.”

The bill would also let voters sign up for permanent absentee ballots rather than require an application each election.

The measure also contains new potential penalties against people who engage in interference or intimidation around the election process. And it requires that more election materials be made available in multiple languages in areas with many non-English speakers.

A separate section calls for more disclosure of spending by outside groups when language used in ads or other materials is “unmistakable,” “unambiguous” or clearly designed to promote or urge defeat of a candidate or cause. Some groups get around disclosure now with clever phrasing that leaves the content outside of current regulation.

In 2022, there were roughly $63 million of independent expenditures around Minnesota’s state elections. But experts say the tally probably is short of everything that was spent.

Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board Executive Director Jeff Sigurdson said failing to fix disclosure loopholes and inconsistent standards could further weaken the public’s ability to see who is attempting to influence elections.

“We don’t believe, through complaints that our board has looked at, that all are being reported to the state,” he said. “This may lead to other independent expenditure committees and funds to opt out of disclosure of independent expenditures.”

Republicans warned that including more requirements on disclosure will attract a lawsuit on free speech grounds. 

“I think there are some serious issues with this underlying language that needs to get vetted out and fixed,” said Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Milaca, at the Senate hearing on Tuesday. “It needs to get ironed out. Otherwise this bill will be an attorney employment insurance act for the next few years, which is none of our desires here.”

Greenman said she believes it would withstand legal challenges.

The bill has several more committees to wind through in the House and Senate before final votes.