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First election-change bill would offer ‘no-excuse’ absentee voting

It also would permit voters to apply for permanent absentee status, which would require the state to mail them an absentee ballot before each election.

Rep. Simon made it clear that the no-excuse absentee measure is different from "early voting," although he said he hopes the Legislature would enact both.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

The raft of DFL-backed elections changes expected this session started trickling in Thursday as Rep. Steve Simon moved forward with a bill that would allow voters to cast an absentee ballot for any reason.

Current state law requires people who vote by absentee to have an excuse for why they can’t show up at their polling place in person on Election Day.

Simon’s bill would remove that provision and also permit voters to apply for ongoing or permanent absentee status, which would require the state to mail them an absentee ballot before each election.

The measure marks a move toward some form of expanded early-voting procedures, which are currently employed by 32 states. Simon said Minnesota’s law is difficult to enforce right now.

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“We have no one who is the ‘absence police’ out there,” Simon said during Thursday’s House Elections Committee. Most Minnesotans, he said, know people who don’t obey the law in its current form.

He cited a statistic from Edina to prove his point: About a quarter of registered voters there used absentee balloting in the 2008 presidential election. “I have a hard time believing they were all on a business trip that day,” Simon joked.

Legislators didn’t appear perturbed by the fibs voters told to use absentee balloting for convenience, and Simon said one of his main concerns is to ensure the average citizen isn’t made into a criminal.

Different from ‘early voting’

Simon made it clear that the no-excuse absentee measure is different from “early voting,” although he said he hopes the Legislature would enact both.

Because of the way the two procedures are handled, people who use absentee ballots have the ability to change their votes, which is not the case for straightforward early-voting mechanisms.

“If you have a Wellstone crash or you have even something less dramatic — you’re for Obama, but you see an ad or you talk to someone you respect and you change your mind, now you’re for Romney — you can go claw that thing back,” Simon said of no-excuse absentee balloting.

Beth Fraser, of the Secretary of State’s Office, testified in support of the measure. Kent Kaiser, a Republican who has previously worked for the secretary of state, also voiced his approval.

Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky said the county allowed no-excuse absentee ballots in the mid-1990s, which resulted in a 54 percent uptick in their use for the 1996 election.

Mansky also said a straight early-voting measure — separate from the proposal before the committee on Thursday— would cost about half as much per voter as absentee balloting does.

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Bipartisan effort required

Gov. Mark Dayton has stressed in the past that elections legislation must garner bipartisan support to earn his signature.

That’s why Republicans resorted to using the constitutional amendment procedure, which bypasses the governor, to place its controversial, DFL-opposed voting proposal directly on the ballot. Voters last fall shot down that measure.

It’s unclear whether no-excuse absentee balloting will fly with Republicans, who typically have focused on election integrity, rather than voter access. The committee laid over the measure Thursday for further consideration.

Simon appeared to take the governor’s ultimatum seriously. The Democrat from St. Louis Park decided to delay a vote on the measure — Simon chairs the committee — to give members more time to consider the changes.

Rep. Tim O’Driscoll, a Republican who proposed at least two amendments to the bill, said he appreciated Simon’s commitment to working with the minority caucus.

GOP legislator praises Simon’s outreach

“We’re very appreciative of that fact that Rep. Simon wants to put bipartisan legislation through and doesn’t feel the need to, if you will, expedite things out of the committee,” O’Driscoll said.

 “He’s willing to sit down and to listen to [both] sides, and we appreciate that. We’d like to have that working relationship with him,” he said.” Obviously there’s different views and different ideas on how that can get done, and that’s what the committee’s work needs to be.”

But Democrats criticized an amendment from O’Driscoll that would have replaced an exemption on the absentee ballot application for voters who don’t have a driver’s license, state identification or Social Security number.

DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler said the amendment measured up to “a little bit of the old Photo ID fight again.”

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O’Driscoll declined to say whether he would support Simon’s bill in its current form.

“I’m never confident about anything,” O’Driscoll said of the bill’s chances for bipartisan backing. “I’m optimistic.”