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Minnesota Legislature

Republicans charge elections bill breaks nonpartisan norm

Under the past three governors — Jesse Ventura, Tim Pawlenty and Mark Dayton — the omnibus elections bill has traditionally been a bipartisan effort that stood on its own.

That was then …

House DFLers generally like what has been proposed in this year’s omnibus elections bill, but many House Republicans believe it fails on both accounts.

The bottom line is HF1603 was held over, as amended, Wednesday by the House State Government Finance Division for possible inclusion in its omnibus bill that is scheduled to be unveiled online Sunday with a public walkthrough Monday.

The bill contains more than two-dozen provisions designed to improve elections, campaign finance and  redistricting including allowing people to register to vote when applying for a driver’s license or state identification card; restoring voting rights for felons upon release from incarceration; ensuring access to a voter’s political party choice at the presidential primary is not made publically accessible; and appropriating federal money from the Help America Vote Act to improve security and administration of elections.

Minnesota is the lone state yet to accept the federal dollars. A conference committee on the subject has gone nowhere. Senate conferees failed to even show up for the latest gathering March 21.

But that’s just one provision. As for the rest?

“It has been a 20-year, 20-year, tradition upheld by every chair that the bill that came out of the House would be bipartisan. … What you see before you is nothing even close to that,” said Rep. Jim Nash (R-Waconia). “ … I’ve heard some people categorize it as the most partisan thing they’ve seen coming out of the elections committee in a long time. Others have called it fertilizer.”

Nash said the bill contains 22 partisan provisions and seven that are bipartisan or nonpartisan. Rep. Raymond Dehn (DFL-Mpls), the bill sponsor, said he conservatively sees 21 nonpartisan issues and eight partisan.

“I think school board vacancy is a nonpartisan issue; I think restoration of [felon] voting rights has been proven to be nonpartisan for quite some time; previously the Republican chair of the public safety committee actually authored that bill for several years. I think permanent absentee voters should be nonpartisan; I think the presidential national party primary is something that has been a nonpartisan issue. The election voting system which expands electronic voting systems and certification is a nonpartisan issue; I think elections by mail is a nonpartisan issue," Dehn said before listing another half-dozen provisions he views as nonpartisan.

“Some things that have been painted as partisan issues — and we can paint anything here at the Legislature as partisan issues,” Dehn said.

“By your own admission this has partisan provisions in it whereas there has never been a place for it in this bill in the past. I find that regrettable,” Nash said. He said that in the last biennium Rep. Michael Nelson (DFL-Brooklyn Park), then minority lead on the elections committee, “praised it for being nonpartisan.”

A motion by Rep. Tony Albright (R-Prior Lake) to refer the elections bill to the House Ways and Means Committee failed on an 11-7 party-line vote.

The vote was hardly a surprise because, according to a bill summary from the nonpartisan House Research Department, provisions came from 20 bills sponsored by a DFL member and one from a Republican.

“An Independent, a Republican and a Democrat governor have strongly urged both chambers to bring forward bipartisan (election) bills that everyone could agree on, and until that was successfully accomplished he, in the case of the three governors past, would not be willing to sign that measure into law,” Albright said. “And I fear that precedence has been broken.”

He said that is also true for elections provisions travelling as a solo package.

“I’m disappointed in the leadership that the executive branch of our government has not shown on this,” Albright said.

Nelson said the Senate plans to incorporate election bills into its omnibus state government bill.

“Their committee structure is different and elections is in with their state government finance. That’s why the bill is going to probably end up in our, or parts of this bill are going to end up in our, bill because we’re the ones that fund it.”

Dehn is “not so sure” if any bills in the proposed omnibus elections package are moving in the other body. “We were told early on that there may not be an elections bill in the Senate. I’m the chair of the subcommittee on elections. I felt it was my duty to put together a bill and that’s what I’ve done.” 

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