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Vote delayed on package of DFL-backed election changes

HF9, as amended, offers changes in areas that include voter registration, elections administration and security, and campaign finance and disclosure law. House Photography file photo

Usually in a legislative session, bills are introduced individually and ultimately combined into an omnibus bill — a package of proposals under the umbrella of one topic.

Less than three months since the hotly contested November elections, an all-encompassing elections bill has been unveiled by the majority party in the House — and, Republicans say, was attempted to be rushed through its first committee.

Sponsored by Rep. Emma Greenman (DFL-Mpls), and co-sponsored by 31 DFLers and zero Republicans, HF9, as amended, offers changes in areas that include voter registration, elections administration and security, and campaign finance and disclosure law. A preliminary fiscal note shows a $36.4 million cost in the upcoming biennium.

“This strengthens and modernizes Minnesota’s best traditions of voter participation, of sound elections administration and trusted local elections officials, of transparency in government, and of grassroots campaigns and small-dollar support,” Greenman told the House State Government Finance and Elections Committee Thursday. “The package combines common-sense solutions that rest on the premise that our state works best when Minnesota voices are at the center of our democracy.”

House elections panel discusses package of elections changes 01/28/21

The bill was held over by the committee until Friday.

If it receives committee approval, the bill’s next stop would be the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee. Its companion, SF422, sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Port (DFL-Burnsville), awaits action by the Senate State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee.

Greenman said one highlight is an attempt to address dark money and the explosion of political spending by outside groups through independent expenditures. She said these “are not accountable to voters or the candidates, and in many cases voters and candidates may not even know who’s funding them.”

In part, it would require disclosure of the top three donors of groups spending elections’ money in the state. “(This way) voters know who’s trying to influence all of our votes,” Greenman said.

Other proposed changes include:

  • an eligible applicant for a new or renewed driver’s license, instruction permit or identification card; Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare; or services from another participating agency, would be registered to vote, unless the applicant opts out;
  • reinstating voting rights for convicted felons upon release from incarceration;
  • letting 16- and 17-year-olds pre-register to vote;
  • voters could join a permanent absentee voter list for automatic delivery of an absentee ballot;
  • requiring certain absentee voting instructions be printed in English, Spanish, Hmong and Somali;
  • eliminating the witness signature requirement on absentee ballot return envelopes;
  • allowing the counting of ballots postmarked by Election Day for up to seven days;
  • expanding voter intimidation, interference and deceptive protections; and
  • giving registered voters a pair of $25 “Democracy Dollars” that would be available to support any candidate.

The proposal does not include the showing of a valid ID to register and receive a ballot, a top priority for Senate Republicans.

“We need to make our democracy more accessible to everyone if we want it to work. If anyone is left out, it’s no longer a democracy. We must actively invite people in, especially those who have been excluded from the process for far too long,” Ginny DeLuca, a volunteer with Faith in Minnesota, wrote in a letter to the committee.

In addition, the bill would create transparency and fair principles for the redistricting process, including population equality, contiguity, minority representation, recognizing communities of interest together, compactness and ensuring a district is not drawn to unduly favor or disfavor a political party.

“(This would) ensure the lines that shape our democracy are drawn to represent the voices of our communities and of Minnesotans,” Greenman said.

 

Process concerns

Following more than 45 minutes of supporter testimony, committee Republicans were given less than one-third of that time to ask questions about the 70-page bill. There was no walk-though of the bill nor a deep review into the preliminary fiscal note.

“We have given hours and hours and hours in past biennium on single parts of this bill,” said Rep. Jim Nash (R-Waconia), while addressing Rep. Michael Nelson (DFL-Brooklyn Park), the committee chair. “ … This is rushed, and it’s not even close to being fair to my members that we’re not even going to give them more than 15 minutes worth of questioning time. … There’s a lot of crap in here sir that we haven’t gotten to. I, at the very least, think you should bring this bill back in our next regularly scheduled meeting because there’s so much to talk about. … This is outrageous that we’ve got so little time to talk about this.”

Nelson replied the committee could bring it back Friday — which it is doing — or bring it back before it goes to the House Ways and Means Committee when a final fiscal note is ready.

 

Constitutional officers weigh in

Secretary of State Steve Simon and Attorney General Keith Ellison, both DFLers, expressed support for the bill.

Simon said Minnesota’s 79.96% voter turnout in November again led the nation, but there’s room for improvements to make our democracy more accessible, fair and transparent.

“This bill moves our democracy forward by empowering people. It includes reforms that have enjoyed bipartisan support across the country,” he said, citing examples of streamlined voter registration, more direct access to absentee balloting and fair redistricting principles.

Ellison focused his remarks on proposed changes in voter intimidation, interference and deceptive practices.

“Giving the attorney general’s office civil enforcement will allow to us to act swiftly to enforce Minnesota’s voter protection laws and protect democracy. And promote justice. It’s provisions that we could have had during the last election that would have been very beneficial,” he said.

That was in reference to an October investigation into a Tennessee-based company purportedly seeking private security guards and military personnel to be near Minnesota polling places. Current law gave the company 20 days to respond, while the investigation began less than 20 days from the election. A court order shrunk the response time to 10 days.


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