St. Paul – Several unheralded bills that will change Minnesota’s election system in both obvious and “behind the scenes” ways have been making their way through the legislature this year.
Many Minnesota voters are likely to notice some of the changes in the upcoming November elections, but some changes won’t be so obvious.
The 2012 effort to amend Minnesota’s constitution to require identification to vote resulted in a rough-and-tumble controversy between “voter access” and “election integrity” camps that may have left all sides feeling raw, including Governor Dayton who had no legal say in the constitutional debate, but weighed in strongly against the effort with his bully pulpit.
The few election reforms that passed in the 2013 legislative session that followed were bipartisan and mostly non-controversial. Compromises were made. Convicted felons were provided better notification of the status of their voting rights. Laws about investigative and prosecutorial responsibilities were clarified for voter fraud cases and Minnesota’s nearly unique practice of “vouching” (where one voter could vouch that up to 15 other unregistered and unidentified voters were eligible to vote in his or her precinct) was slashed in half.
Though lawmakers may have seemed reticent to make big changes to our election system in the wake of the fight over the Voter ID amendment, election bills are ramping up in the 2014 session that could affect many voters in the upcoming mid-term election.
This year, some legislators are testing the waters with more controversial election bills, like Representative Freiberg’s bill to overturn a century-old law prohibiting voters from marking their ballots with their names or other identifying marks. That law has been in place since 1891 to prevent the practice of “vote buying.” The bill is currently hung up in a Senate committee, but it passed the House Elections Committee on a Party-line vote with all Democrats voting in favor and all Republicans opposed.
In the midst of a lawsuit against the secretary of state for his unilateral launch of an online voter registration system that had been twice-rejected by the legislative process, a bill to authorize the process was introduced at the start of session this year. Despite the controversy swirling around it and the potential for partisan bickering, Minnesota Majority, a plaintiff in the still-pending lawsuit met with legislators on both side of the aisle and helped broker an amendment that would authorize online registration with 6 new integrity and security measures. The bill that emerged from those negotiations passed out of the House Elections Committee unanimously and now awaits a final floor vote.
In 2013, a bill was passed to authorize a study of replacing the old-fashioned paper voter rosters that voters sign-in on with an electronic system that can instantly verify the voter is in the right precinct, is known to be eligible to vote and would also eliminate the long delays in updating post-election voter records that has plagued the larger counties in Minnesota. The 2014 legislature is poised to launch the new system statewide, but each county or community will be able to choose whether to employ the new technology or not as the bill now stands.
“This new procedure won’t affect how anyone votes,” explained Minnesota Majority president Dan McGrath. “It will speed up Election Day registration, shorten lines for everyone, improve the accuracy of our voter rolls and most importantly, it will make it possible to reconcile the number of ballots in the box with the number of voters who signed in before an election is certified.”
Another proposed law would mostly work unnoticed, behind the scenes but it has the potential to scrub Minnesota’s voter rolls of non-residents and deceased voters and at the same time, expand voter participation. The bill was hatched by Mark Ritchie’s Office of the Secretary of State, which has often butted heads with Minnesota Majority, the grassroots watchdog group known for its work on Election Integrity. Despite past conflicts, Minnesota Majority’s president supports the bill.
“We’ve long advocated compacts to compare voter rolls amongst the states to find and eliminate voters who have multiple registrations. If Minnesota participates in the Electronic Registration Information Center, we’ll be better able to identify and remove invalid registrations from our voter rolls,” said McGrath.
The multi-state project known as ERIC has only been in existence for two years, but state membership is growing and it’s already helping participants scrub their rolls of ineligible voters and at the same time is increasing participation from eligible voters.
“From our perspective, we’re seeing ‘baby-steps’ towards more integrity in our election system without hindering any eligible voter’s access to a ballot. It may go unsung, but it’s significant. We still think Minnesota needs to follow the lead of so many other states that are adopting some form of ID requirement to vote, but we’re happy to see some progress on many of the other areas we’ve been working on,” said McGrath.
Governor Mark Dayton has pledged not to sign any election bill into law that doesn’t have ‘strong bipartisan support,’ which probably contributes to the numerous compromises made during this legislative cycle, but there is at least one bill that still stands out as highly contentious this year. It follows in the wake of the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision by the US Supreme Court that determined associations made up of people have, collectively, the right of free political speech.
The Supreme Court decision has caused much consternation in some political camps and while the IRS is attempting to promulgate new rules governing non-profit speech, bills have also been cropping up in state legislatures. The Minnesota campaign finance board backed one such bill last year. It was killed by a bipartisan compromise, but it’s back again this year and full of partisan controversy. The bill would create onerous new reporting requirements for both non-profit and for-profit corporations wishing to engage in issue-oriented advocacy.
The new version of this ‘electioneering’ bill introduced this year contains language that several organizations consider vague and subjective (like “clearly;” “reasonable;” and “biased”). Minnesota Majority, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the Minnesota Family Council and others are objecting to the new proposals.
Minnesota Majority’s president Dan McGrath said, “’bias’ is often in the eye of the beholder. In this case, it’s entirely up to the governor to determine who the ‘beholders’ are.”
The 6-member campaign finance board, which makes such decisions is appointed by the governor.
“It’s a spooky attempt to chill speech,” said McGrath. “The bill proposes to make identical messages which are constitutionally protected free speech during some of the year into regulated speech during another part of the year.
The ‘press’ (as long as the board doesn’t consider a particular organization “fringe press”) is specifically exempted for their editorializing and the political and policy aspirations of private and public labor unions are also unaffected.
“Free speech for some, at certain times, as government permits it,” is how McGrath described the bill’s aims. “It creates free speech zones on the calendar and it most hurts the ‘little guys’ who need to pool resources to have a chance to compete with the big money of the super-rich and major media outlets.”
There remains relatively little controversy in most of the proposed election reforms that are moving this year, but alongside the various bipartisan bills that were fairly negotiated and likely to pass, there are a couple measures that have the support of only one party and complete opposition from the minority.
“We have one-party rule in Minnesota right now, so if the Democrats in charge decide to pass free speech weeks and enable vote-buying, there’s only so much the opposition can do, but I’ve seen a refreshing, new bipartisan spirit around election bills this session and hope that the bad bills don’t see the light of day. If they do, but lack bipartisan support, I hope Governor Dayton will hold true to his word and veto them,” McGrath concluded.