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Legislature might consider an ‘early voting’ system for Minnesota

Passage, though, would require bipartisan support, and at this point, that doesn’t seem very likely.

Will Minnesotans join the early voters in Arizona and 31 other states?
REUTERS/Joshua Lott

It’s looking possible that early voting will rise from the ashes of the voting amendment in Minnesota.

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On the surface, early voting, now allowed in 32 states, might seem to represent the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum from requiring all voters to have state-approved photo identification card. Early voting, after all, encourages participation. Critics said that the amendment’s photo ID requirement would suppress participation.

But the costly amendment fight did highlight the fact that there’s room for change in Minnesota voting laws. And there was an implied promise among foes of the amendment, which included Gov. Mark Dayton, that the voting amendment should be “sent back to the Legislature” for repair.

Start with this: With the DFL now back in the legislative majorities, voter ID as it was presented to — and rejected by — Minnesotans is dead.

Election changes need bipartisan support

Additionally, any changes in Minnesota election law put forward by the DFL will have to have some across-the-aisle support. At this point, such support seems unlikely.

Rep. Steve Simon
Rep. Steve Simon

“This is not the time to railroad through any sort of an agenda,” said Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park. “Gov. Dayton has made it clear that he expects election bills to have bipartisan support.”

But Simon, who for years has sat on elections committees in the House and who likely will have great influence on any elections laws debated in the upcoming session, does believe the time has come to look closely at bringing early voting to Minnesota.

That discussion will be spurred by complaints of long waits for voters at some precincts in this year’s election.

“There is no reason Minnesotans should have long waits to vote,” Simon said.

Early voting would seem to be the most obvious way to get around lines at polling places. Nationally, more than 30 million people voted before Election Day. In early-voting states, that allowed people to go to a polling place and cast their vote.

Most Minnesotans had only one option to voting on Nov. 6, the mail-in absentee ballot. Those voters had to say they would be out of their precinct on Election Day and therefore needed the absentee ballot.

“It’s a nod-and-a wink system,” Simon said, adding that he hopes that by the next election, Minnesota will at least offer voters a “no excuse” absentee ballot choice.

(It should be noted that in certain rural areas in Minnesota, all voting is done by mail to save small townships the costs of running a polling place and to save residents long drives. Additionally, Minnesota law does allow in-person absentee voting on the Saturday before Election Day.)

It’s unclear how open Republican legislators will be to changes in Minnesota voting. Given the defeat of the GOP-backed voting amendment, there may some reluctance to support the new majority on any voting changes.

If Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, is representative of her caucus, any election law changes could face tough sledding.

Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer
MinnPost photo by James Nord
Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer was one of the most outspoken advocates for requiring photo ID for voting.

Kiffmeyer, a former secretary of state, who was just elected to the Senate, was the main force behind the voting amendment. She’ll need a whole lot of convincing from DFLers before moving forward on anything like early voting.

For the moment, Kiffmeyer is trying to meet with either the governor or someone on his staff to see what “fixing” is needed on the ID provisions.

“I have a request in to meet with the governor,” Kiffmeyer said. “So far, I’m told he has no time. There was a time set up to meet with a deputy, but I couldn’t meet at that time. We’re still waiting for another meeting time.”

The between-the-lines message Kiffmeyer said she’s receiving from the governor is that the governor is interested “in fixing the amendment sometime in the next 30 years.”

Early voting, she said, is something that seems to be of greater interest to DFLers than to Republicans. But she pointed out that there is a problem with early voting that came up when she was secretary of state.

Sen. Paul Wellstone died after hundreds of Minnesotans had already mailed back their absentee ballots. At that time, Kiffmeyer said, DFLers wanted those votes to count for Wellstone’s fill-in, former Vice President Walter Mondale. That didn’t happen.

But early voting could present a similar problem.

“An early vote is an irreversible vote,” Kiffmeyer said. “You can’t change your vote.”

Kiffmeyer also said that she — and other Republicans — also would raise many questions about costs associated with early voting.

Sen. Ray Vandeveer
Sen. Ray Vandeveer

“The governor made frequent statements about voter ID being too expensive,” Kiffmeyer said. “He may rue using those words. Those words may come back to him [if early voting becomes a hot topic].”

 There may not be much enthusiasm among other Senate Republicans, either.

“We wanted a [voter ID] bill, not an amendment,” said Sen. Ray Vandeveer, R-Forest Lake. “But we couldn’t get any cooperation.”

Vandeveer, who retired in the wake of redistricting, was chairman of the elections committee last session.

“I’m in no position to pre-judge anything,” Vandeveer said, “but I think the main concern [among Republicans] is who’s voting.”

‘Integrity’ concerns could be addressed

Simon said that perhaps some of the GOP concerns about voter “integrity” can be addressed.

“Once we know committee rosters, we might learn more about what [voter] integrity issues might come forward,” Simon said.

He believes there should be at least some steps in voting changes that can be made on a bipartisan basis.

Meantime, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who has seemed supportive of early voting in the past, is putting together a “package” of recommendations he’ll present to the Legislature, likely after Thanksgiving.

One of the major objections from Ritchie — and others who opposed the voting amendment — was that it placed today’s voting procedures in a permanent way into the Minnesota Constitution. Ritchie, and others, argued that given rapid changes in technology, it’s safe to assume that in the near future, technology will change the way people vote.

Expect Ritchie and others to present ideas on such things as electronic poll books. Using that system, poll judges would have laptop computers containing identification photos of eligible voters. A voter would go to the judge, give his or her name and up would pop a voter.

Eligible voters who weren’t in the system would have their picture taken on the scene and be allowed to vote.

The electronic pollbook idea was presented to the GOP majority last session, as DFLers tried to prevent the ID amendment from going to the ballot.

When they were in the majority, Republicans weren’t interested. It remains to be seen if their interest level has changed.