This coverage is made possible by a grant from The Joyce Foundation.

Minnesota election laws: Bipartisan support emerges for some fine-tuning

REUTERS/Brian McDermott
Rep. Tim Sanders said he’s confident lawmakers can meet the governor’s standard for signing election changes on many of the bills.

State lawmakers are working to fine-tune election law in Minnesota this year on issues ranging from electronic pollbooks to online voter registration.

Election law changes require bipartisan support to get Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature, so it’s one of the few areas where lawmakers are forced to bridge the party gap to get alterations completed.

According to key lawmakers working on the issues, these are among the main elections bills this session:

  • Authorizing local jurisdictions for broader electronic pollbook use
  • Authorizing online voter registration
  • Upgrading technology to improve Minnesota’s voter records
  • Broadening campaign-finance disclosure standards.

For the most part, lawmakers have been able to reach agreement on the proposed bills as this year’s short legislative session moves toward its first major policy deadline at the end of the week.

Still some differences

But there are a few key areas of concern.

Legislators haven’t reached consensus on the campaign finance changes, which passed out of the House Elections Committee on a party-line vote last week. And in the Senate, a Republican version of the online voter-registration bill was voted down with opposition from Democrats.

Rep. Tim Sanders, the Republican lead on elections issues, said he’s confident lawmakers can meet the governor’s standard for signing election changes on many of the bills. He also said that the issues don’t represent enormous shifts.

“I don’t think there’s anything that has to get done this session,” Sanders said. “Everything we’re working on is kind of fine-tuning.”

Campaign-finance changes most dramatic

Among the policy shifts, the campaign-finance disclosure changes are likely the most dramatic.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, an outspoken DFLer, is resuming his push from last session to require broader disclosure of donations from interest groups that wade into political races. Winkler and other Democrats support the move, but it has faced opposition from Republicans.

“As long as they don’t use a few magic words, they can avoid the disclosure requirement,” Winkler said during the committee hearing last week. “This is just to essentially close down a loophole that would allow people to easily circumvent the disclosure requirements.”

The bill would define groups’ “express advocacy” of candidates in state law and make it subject to financial disclosure, and require funding information for issue ads that run shortly before a primary or general election.

“The impulse is a ‘just don’t b.s. us’ impulse, which is: ‘We all know what’s going on here,’ ” Rep. Steve Simon, chairman of the House Elections Committee, explained in an interview. “Let’s call it by its rightful name.”

But Sanders said Republican concerns remain.

“As far as a campaign finance bill goes, I think they have a lot of work left to do,” Sanders said in an interview. “It’s not in a form right now that we can support.”

DFL alone on companion bill support

In the Senate, Katie Sieben, who heads the elections committee there, moved the companion legislation through two hearings this week with only DFL support. Although at least one Republican senator supported her motives, all disagreed with how Sieben would fix the problems.

“If we can pass [the bill], we’ll bring about more transparency,” she said in an interview outlining her priorities.

Lawmakers will likely be able to move forward, though, with authorizing an online voter-registration system, despite last week’s setback in the Senate. A DFL version of the proposal advanced shortly before Democrats opposed the Republican bill.

The Secretary of State’s Office controversially implemented the system on its own last year, and lawmakers want to approve some form of the tool.

“I think reaching common ground and a general accommodation on online voter registration is a big one,” Simon said.

Voter lists gets attention

Lawmakers are also considering joining an organization to help improve the state’s voter list. The Electronic Registration Information Center, a group of seven states, compares available databases to voter registrations to help eliminate deceased voters or to encourage citizens to update their voter registration.

Electronic pollbooks, which have been a hot button issue since DFLers supported them in place of Voter ID, have support from both parties. The changes would codify pollbooks in state law. It originally would have authorized an additional study during the 2014 elections before a likely broader implementation.

But the Senate stripped that provision on Tuesday, and the House already had done so. Sen. Terri Bonoff, after her measure had passed out of a committee, said that it wasn’t necessary to continue studying pollbook usage.

The electronic pollbook systems consist of laptops or tablet computers installed with voting administration software that, advocates say, improves election speed over the current paper pollbooks, helps with accuracy and reduces some costs.

Although lawmakers generally support pollbooks, some would like to see the state move more quickly.

Rep. Carolyn Laine, who authored the House version of the bill, said she’s sad to see the study and funding removed.

“It’s disappointing because it’s not going to be what the task force spent so many meetings on and just wanted to put their hearts and souls into,” Laine said. “That’s disappointing, but at least we’ll take another baby step forward.”

“Resources are always a concern, and putting a pollbook in every precinct in Minnesota would be very expensive, but I do think that moving that direction in terms of digitizing the pollbooks [is a good idea],” Sieben said in a previous interview. “Hopefully it will help improve check-in times, those types of things, be more convenient for voters.”

“It’s expensive so it may take awhile,” she added.

Simon touts RCV options

Simon also mentioned a bill that would authorize local jurisdictions to implement ranked-choice voting. Currently, the system is used in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“If Roseville or Red Wing wants to experiment with RCV — great,” Simon said. “If their people love it — great. If their people hate it, they can ditch it. That’s it.”

Sieben said that piece of legislation wasn’t really on her radar.

Simon said he and Sieben communicate regularly about priorities for the session. He said there also aren’t any major differences between the House and the Senate.

“I’d say a lot of what we’re doing is working with the Democrat majorities on bills that they’re moving forward so far,” Sanders said, reflecting on the proposals. “I think we’ve got some really good work done.”

Effective Democracy is a year-long series of occasional reports supported by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, as part of a grant made to MinnPost and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

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