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Divided division gives stamp of approval to vote-by-mail measure

The House State Government Finance Division approved a bill Monday that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, would expand balloting by mail for the August primary and November general elections. House Photography file photo

Minnesotans registered to cast a ballot in 2020 are one vote closer to being able to do so without leaving their homes.

On a nearly party-line vote, the House State Government Finance Division approved a bill Monday that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, would expand balloting by mail for the August primary and November general elections.

Sponsored by Rep. Raymond Dehn (DFL-Mpls), HF1603, as amended with a delete-all amendment, was sent to the House Ways and Means Committee where it and other election-related bills are scheduled to be addressed Wednesday. There is no Senate companion.

An amendment to the delete-all amendment would clarify the secretary of state can include specific requirements related to polling place closures and the availability of vote centers.

As of April 24, Minnesota had nearly 3.4 million registered voters, a number expected to increase as the elections gets closer.

Proponents argue, in part, that Minnesotans shouldn’t have to jeopardize their health to vote.

“It’s the citizens of our state and their vote that matters. If we can allow them an opportunity to vote and be healthy, I honestly don’t see the problem with that,” said Rep. Ginny Klevorn (DFL-Plymouth).

House State Government Finance Division (Remote Hearing) 4/27/20

Republicans noted that current practice already allows for people to utilize in-person or no-excuse absentee balloting.

Rep. Debra Kiel (R-Crookston) said constituents have told her everyone shouldn’t get a ballot and hope they vote.

“We want people to intentionally go to vote. … This is a privilege to be able to voice our opinion about who is elected, what we do, who spends our money, and how we support our area,” she said.

Voting by mail already takes place in 78 of the state’s 87 counties.

Since 1987, state law has allowed certain cities and all townships to get rid of polling places. An estimated 130,000 Minnesotans live in jurisdictions where registered voters — not just eligible voters —automatically have a ballot mailed to them for every election. However, local officials must still provide a location for in-person voting, such as a county auditor’s office. Provisions have been established for an unregistered voter to request a ballot, including completion of a voter registration application in order for their vote to count.

Secretary of State Steve Simon is not aware of single case of fraud with voting by mail. At a prior hearing, he said 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, for instance, someone has moved.

According to the bill’s fiscal note: “Mail balloting is somewhat more cost effective than absentee balloting, for a variety of reasons starting with the fact that mail balloting does not require the voter to request the ballot, thus eliminating one full cycle of voter interaction.”

The fiscal note estimates a $2,000 cost to the state that would be absorbed by the Office of the Secretary of State. Local jurisdictions cover most election-processing costs, but state staff may need to create a guide to be used by local government in training staff to handle mail elections.

Rep. Michael V. Nelson (DFL-Brooklyn Park) the division chair, was the lone DFLer to vote against the bill.

“While I do support the concept of this, at this time I have to vote no because of commitments I made to people on the earlier bill that was talked about and discussions,” he said without further elaboration.


Second elections bill moving forward

Also scheduled before the House Ways and Means Committee Wednesday is the Nelson-sponsored HF3499. Negotiated in a bipartisan manner, the bill includes authorizing federal Help America Vote Act money for election administration and security and providing changes local governments could make for the upcoming elections because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Republicans voted against the bill last week, with Rep. Jim Nash (R-Waconia) noting the mail-in provision, unveiled less than a day prior as an amendment to HF1603, was a directive from House leadership, and he believes the partisan provision is to become the omnibus elections bill.

Passage of the bill is not expected to be problematic in the DFL-controlled House; however, in the Republican-controlled Senate a thumbs-up vote would be unexpected.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-East Gull Lake) and Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer (R-Big Lake) have expressed opposition to an expansion of voting by mail. Kiffmeyer, a former secretary of state, chairs the Senate State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee.

Dehn prefers the vote-by-mail provision, but acknowledges the bill in current form is unlikely to pass in both bodies. “I believe it’s critical that we continue to work and understand that HF3499 is a critical bill to make sure that we have policies and safety measures in place for our August and November elections.”


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