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Minnesota Legislature

Secretary of state pushes for vote-by-mail amid coronavirus concerns

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All 201 legislative seats are on the ballot in November.

How an expected 3 million-plus Minnesotans will cast their votes is an issue that divides members of the House State Government Finance Division.

In an era of COVID-19, and with so much uncertainty going forward, a push is afoot to provide mail-in balloting for all state voters. Supporters say the change is needed, in part, to keep voters safe during a public health emergency, while arguments from detractors include claims the state’s absentee voter system is sufficient if people don’t want to head to the polls.

Ultimately, no division votes were cast during a Thursday meeting on the highly contested mail-in ballot amendment to an elections bill.

Rep. Michael Nelson (DFL-Brooklyn Park), the division chair, said during the remote hearing he wants to work with Republicans on a compromise. “An elections bill that we move forward has to have bipartisan support,” he said.

As it stands, HF3499, sponsored by Nelson, would appropriate nearly $7.4 million in federal Help America Vote Act funds allocated to the state in December 2019 in order to improve election administration and security. An amendment was added to accept $6.93 million for COVID-19 pandemic election planning that is part of the recently enacted $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act.

In almost all other states, money flows directly to state elections officials, but in Minnesota, state statute requires funds first be specifically appropriated by the Legislature.

But where should those monies best be used?

House State Government Finance Division (Remote Hearing) 4/16/20

Election Day is more than six months away — and a primary is scheduled Aug. 11 — but Secretary of State Steve Simon said planning has been ongoing, such as determining where people can vote. Coronavirus fears complicate those plans because senior centers and schools often serve as some of the state’s roughly 3,000 polling places. And, he noted, the federal Centers for Disease Control is urging people to stay away from polling places.

Additionally, the state could have a hard time recruiting the 3,000 or so needed election judges.

In Wisconsin’s April 7 presidential primary, thousands of poll workers quit which led to long lines at the few remaining places to vote. For example, Milwaukee went from 170 polling places to five. An Illinois election judge died this week as a result of COVID-19, something it is believed the person caught during the election.

What does Simon believe is the easiest, most efficient and most trustworthy way to prevent similar problems here? “It’s to scale up what we already have in Minnesota,” he said.

That would be an option of voting by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic.


'A time-tested Minnesota way'

It won’t be a problem for the estimated 130,000 Minnesotans who currently live in jurisdictions where going somewhere to vote is not an option. Since 1987, a state law has allowed certain cities and all townships to get rid of polling places. This occurs in 78 of the state’s 87 counties.

Simon said registered voters — not just eligible voters — in those areas automatically have a ballot mailed to them for every election be it general, primary or special. He is not aware of single case of fraud. Personal identifying information is required on a submitted ballot, such as a driver’s license or social security number, and ballots cannot be forwarded by the postal service if someone has moved. Voter rolls are regularly updated, for example, by subscribing to state and national death indexes.

“Do you want a lot of people to vote away from polling places or just a few?” Simon said. “If you want just a few, you might roll the dice on current law. If you want a small number of people showing up on Election Day, this is a time-tested Minnesota way that has worked very well.”

Some Republicans are resistant.

“It isn’t because I’m not trying to make our elections safe, it’s I find that we already have a way for people to utilize in-person or absentee balloting,” said Rep. Jim Nash (R-Waconia). Nash said he’s spoken to Simon about ways election officials could handle more absentee ballot requests.

Rep. Debra Kiel (R-Crookston) said some constituents have told her they want the “privilege” of requesting a ballot and walking into a polling place. “There are some ways that [townships] could adapt,” she said, suggesting voting-by-appointment as an option.

Simon emphasized the proposed change would not get rid of polling places, only reduce the number.

“If we go with current law, I will put my heart and soul over the next six months, and so will my office, into drumming up support for people from a public health standpoint to do this,” Simon said.

More than two-dozen letters were submitted in support of voting by mail.

Clifford Kashtan of St. Louis Park wrote: “This amendment will save lives by limiting the potential for COVID-19 transmission during in-person voting. … Voting by mail will prevent a new wave of COVID-19 infection caused by in person voting, and the downstream economic effects of another Stay At Home order, closed businesses, lost jobs and decreased state revenues.”

Also held over during Thursday’s meeting was an amendment to, in part, allow for the consolidation or closing of polling places and expand the time for absentee ballots to be counted during a peacetime emergency declared by the governor.

A companion, SF3548, sponsored by Sen. Ann Rest (DFL-New Hope), awaits action by the Senate State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee.

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