The Minnesota secretary of state’s office is known for elections. Voter registration. Election security.
Less well known is another function administered by the office: The Safe at Home program, an address confidentiality program created in 2007 for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. When someone is enrolled, the program assigns those who enroll a P.O. box that they can use as their legal address.
While 37 other states have established similar address confidentiality programs, some federal agencies refuse to acknowledge Safe at Home P.O. boxes. That inconsistency prompted Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon to work with Rep. Betty McCollum, of Minnesota’s Fourth District, to create a federal Safe at Home Act, a bipartisan bill and joint effort with officials in Missouri that would standardize how federal agencies deal with Safe at Home mailboxes.
Safe at Home
In Minnesota, eligibility and sign-up for the Safe at Home program is administered by local advocates, certified employees of county agencies and nonprofits. The program allows enrollees to receive mail without disclosing their home, employment, or school address. The secretary of state then forwards the mail to their real address.
In 2017, 2,619 people in Minnesota participated in the program. All public and private agencies in the state must accept the Safe at Home P.O. box as a legal address. But that requirement doesn’t apply to federal agencies.
“Some federal agencies were easy to deal with and recognized the Safe at Home address, which is a P.O. box in St. Paul,” said Simon. “Other federal agencies did not recognize that address. And that was a problem. And in talking with other states, we realized it wasn’t just a Minnesota thing.”
McCollum’s office has said that federal agencies not accepting P.O. boxes has resulted in difficulty receiving Social Security benefits, federal employment forms and paperwork to enroll their children in federal programs.
At a press conference on Tuesday announcing the Safe at Home Act, McCollum said that Simon’s work was critical to understanding exactly how the program functions, so that they could figure out how to best write the bill.
“Mr. Simon and his staff worked with us every single step of the way, writing this legislation to making sure we got it just right. And I’m so happy he can be here with us today as we introduced this bill because I sincerely mean this: Without him, it would not be possible,” McCollum said.
Missouri and Minnesota
Missouri was the first state to take the lead on the issue federally. Republican Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri introduced the first iteration of the bill in 2017, with Sen. Roy Blunt offering up the companion bill in the Senate. Neither came up for a vote.
Simon said the differences in the new version of the bill are important to understand.
“Prior versions of this bill didn’t go far enough, in my judgment,” said Simon. “They said things like … ‘Federal agencies may recognize safe at home addresses.’ Well, that’s just a restatement of current practice. They may and they may not. It seemed to me like some of the prior versions were more window dressing than anything else.”
But Simon said officials from the state of Missouri, like Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, were the first to flag these inconsistencies and have been working for some time to establish these protections at the federal level.
“It makes sense to offer the same protections we do in the states at the federal level, and I appreciate the work of our representatives bringing this important legislation to the House floor,” Ashcroft said in a statement. “This bill helps protect victims and doesn’t cost a dime; this is good government.”
Missouri’s Rep. Smith and his colleague Rep. Vicky Hartzler are cosponsors of McCollum’s bill. So are Reps. Angie Craig of Minnesota’s Second District and Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota’s Third District, in addition to 11 others.
Phillips, speaking at the press conference on Tuesday, said that the issue is critical not just because it provides a secure way to receive mail, but because it makes the ability to register to vote more secure for those who need it.
“Nobody who has to register to vote and share their address should ever be fearful,” he said.
Simon said that the Safe at Home program is meant to provide safety and security. And those who sign up should not have to compromise their protection for access to federal services. He believes this bill is critical to ensuring that doesn’t happen.
“If they’ve enrolled in the Safe at Home program, they’re probably at the end of their rope. So this is often the most difficult, most challenging time of their lives,” said Simon.
“And the very least we can do is guarantee that federal agencies don’t make their lives more difficult by forcing them to choose between a federal government service they want and the protection that they currently enjoy.”