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Provisional balloting, a June primary and ‘I voted’ stickers: How legislators are looking to change Minnesota elections

MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
Under current law, Minnesotans can lose their eligibility to vote if they’re convicted of a felony, live in the state illegally or are declared legally incompetent by the courts.

In St. Paul, there are only a few areas where bipartisanship is not just a lofty goal, it’s a requirement.

That includes any changes lawmakers want to make to the state’s election and voting systems. Gov. Mark Dayton, like former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, has said he’ll only sign election-related bills if the proposals have broad support from legislators in both parties — no matter who’s in power.

It’s a tradition that some say has bolstered Minnesota’s strong election system, which has some of the highest voter turnout rates in the nation and few instances of fraud. The rule has also influenced the measures moving through the Legislature this year, with the Republicans who control both chambers ditching proposals that have been controversial in the past — like voter ID — and advancing a list of changes to the state’s election system that have broad support.

Well, mostly.

As Secretary of State Steve Simon says: “I would say there is work that has yet to be done to get the bipartisan support necessary for the governor’s signature.”

‘We have a system that works well’

Simon is pushing back on a provision in the state Senate’s elections bill that would establish a provisional balloting system in Minnesota.

Under current law, Minnesotans can lose their eligibility to vote if they’re convicted of a felony, live in the state illegally or are declared legally incompetent by the courts. Various state departments collect those names and send them to the Secretary of State’s office, which compiles a list. If someone challenges a voter’s eligibility at the ballot box, the voter can “self-certify” in front of an election judge, which is essentially taking an oath that they are indeed eligible to vote. Lying during that process is considered a felony. Those self-certified ballots are then tossed in with the rest of the ballots.

That’s something Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, wants to change. Her proposal (SF 514) would eliminate self-certification and create a so-called provisional ballot, which would be filed separately from other ballots until election officials can sort through them.

Secretary of State Steve Simon

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Secretary of State Steve Simon

Kiffmeyer said nearly every state in the nation has some kind of system that keeps provisional ballots separate, but not Minnesota. “Most Minnesotans out there they will ask: Why is this even an issue?” Kiffmeyer said. “How is the system not already doing this?”

Under her bill, challenged voters will be notified of their status ahead of the election and given time to appeal. But Simon says it creates a “maybe pile” of votes that would add significant time and costs to the state’s election system. Voters who cast provisional ballots would know within 10 weeks whether their ballot was accepted or not.

In the last election, Simon said to date they know of no cases where a self-certified voters turned out to be ineligible. There were, however, cases of eligible voters erroneously marked as felons who were challenged at the ballot box. “I really worry that it has, in the future, the power to empower polling place challengers,” he said. “All it would take is a challenge to put that person’s ballot in the maybe pile, and we don’t need it. We have a system that works well.”

Democrats mostly oppose the idea, and provisional balloting doesn’t appear in the House Republican’s election policy bill. Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, the author of the House bill, said that’s because she didn’t want her bill to come with any costs to the state. (Kiffmeyer’s bill would cost a total of $10 million over the next two years, though that also includes money for new voting machines.)

Fenton’s bill (HF 729) also includes a proposal to move Minnesota’s primary date from the first Tuesday in August to the “the first Tuesday after the third Monday in June” each even-numbered year. The primary was changed from September to August several years ago, but turnout has been low in primary elections since then.

Simon supports moving the date too. He even carried the proposal while he served as a representative in the Minnesota House. “The August primary is a terrible time to have a primary; no one shows up,” he said. “Minnesotans do the Minnesotan thing and try to squeeze out the last drops of summer.”

State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer

State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer

He’s hoping the upcoming open governor’s race in 2018 will push more people toward a date in June. With many candidates jumping in on both sides, he thinks lawmakers will want to get the intra-party elections out of the way sooner to give more time for general election campaigns.

It’s a proposal that has plenty of bipartisan support — but also bipartisan opposition. Kiffmeyer didn’t include the June primary in her bill because there wasn’t agreement within the Senate Republican caucus about moving the primary date. Opponents of the June primary say it will make legislators vulnerable to primary challenges because they won’t be able to fully campaign until the legislative session ends in late May.

As a former legislator, Simon understands those concerns. “I do believe in the old saying, there’s no such thing as paranoia in politics because they really are always out to get you,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is, in other states, you haven’t had that play out.”

Broad support for many changes

But back to the bipartisan stuff. Fenton said she wanted to make the House elections bill clean and simple so the governor would sign it, and most of the changes she’s proposing are supported by local governments and the Secretary of State’s office.

MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

Among the changes, Fenton wants to expand the days Minnesotans can vote in-person before Election Day. Currently, Minnesota has mail-in absentee balloting about 40 days before the election and an early in-person voting option seven days before the election. There was a huge spike in the use of both in the last election, with counties seeing a huge rush of people to the polls to vote in-person days before the election. Fenton’s bill would allow voters to cast their absentee ballots via mail or in person at their local government offices for the entire 40-plus days. Her bill would also send out the popular “I Voted” stickers to all who choose to vote absentee.

“That will be tremendous cost savings and time savings,” Fenton said. “I think it also verifies the integrity of the process because the voter has the option: ‘Do I want to put [my ballot] in the envelope and send it off somewhere or do I want to be the last person to touch my ballot before it goes into the ballot box?’”

Both bills also aim to create uniform election dates across the state for everything from statewide races all the way down to school board and township elections. The dates don’t match up in the House and Senate bills, but both aim to have only one date most months when elections can be held.

State Rep. Kelly Fenton

State Rep. Kelly Fenton

The Senate bill also allocates funding to new polling place equipment, a change Simon said is critical for local governments. The machinery used at many Minnesota polling places is more than a decade old and is not easy to repair. New machines cost about $10,000 per polling place, and promised funding from the federal government never materialized. Some local governments have resorted to finding replacement pieces to election machines on eBay. “Imagine if you still had your 2004 or 2005 flip phone,” Simon said. “It would be hard to get it repaired.”

The two election policy bills are heading to the House and Senate floors, and then they will head to a conference committee to work out any differences.

Both Kiffmeyer and Fenton said they’re confident they will ultimately pass a bill that Dayton will sign. “The governor has the policy that there must be bipartisan support, and if there’s bipartisan support he will sign the bill,” Fenton said. “This is a great bill coming out of the House and it has bipartisan support.”

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/28/2017 - 10:26 am.


    I still use a flip phone, and it has never needed repair… But then, I don’t text, or use it for email, or Google maps, or to send video. I just use it for…um…phone calls.

  2. Submitted by John Webster on 03/28/2017 - 11:56 am.

    Even Better Reforms

    Here are two reforms that would be even better than those proposed in this article:

    (1) As Phyllis Kahn favored, convert the current structure of elected government into one that is more transparent and therefore more accountable to voters. Institute a British-style parliamentary system, with one house for the state legislature, which would then elect the Governor/Prime Minister. The majority party could then enact its agenda – with full accountability for results, no fingerpointing, no gridlock.

    (2) If we can’t have a parliamentary system, at least have a unicameral legislature. If the Governor and the majority in the legislature are from opposite parties, at least we’ll have only two agendas to deal with. The current bicameral structure is outdated because of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that require representation in state legislative bodies to be apportioned on the basis of population, not geography.

    I know – these proposals will never be enacted. Politicians now in power want to keep things the way they are. The top priority for 99% of them is self-preservation in office, and if possible, advancement to higher office.

    • Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 03/28/2017 - 08:59 pm.

      Yes John,

      Cut that # of legislators, now 200, in half and meet year around. The 45% pay raise, plus their per diem payments will give them an annual salary that many voters would love.

  3. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 03/28/2017 - 01:44 pm.

    Penalties for false challenges

    With provisional ballots, the real threat is people using challenges to harass voters. If this were to pass and be signed, penalties need to be created for poll watchers who contest lots of voters with no factual basis in order to discourage voting. If a person makes more than four challenges and more than one is found to be false, they should be fined and banned from making future challenges.

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 03/28/2017 - 01:48 pm.

    As a Democrat who believes in bi-partisan governing if we can honestly get there, I am pleased to see Rep. Fenton’s bill as described here: the bill’s features make sense, and they seem to tend toward making voting easier and more logical.

    What would be nice is if Minnesota can continue the healthy tradition of bi-partisan agreement on anything that changes our voting system. What other states dominated by Republican legislators are doing raises the hair on one’s neck, because they appear to be trying to limit voting.

  5. Submitted by Serafina Scheel on 03/28/2017 - 03:02 pm.

    Poor use of provisional ballots

    The provisional ballot part of this bill is excessively costly and cumbersome. If voters are listed as challenged in the voting roster for any reason, they must vote on a provisional ballot and then go in person to the county auditor or municipal clerk’s office with documentation to prove their eligibility. It’s such a huge bar for many people.

    The penalties for falsely affirming the voter’s oath–which is essentially “I am 18 or older, a citizen, I am who I say I am and live where I say I do”–are steep and provide enough deterrent protection that the extra cost of provisional balloting is not justified.

    This is another reform that hurts the integrity of the system rather than bolstering it by putting additional barriers in the way of eligible voters. It seems likely to disenfranchise more people rather than to prevent people from fraudulently voting.

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/28/2017 - 07:31 pm.

    It’s hard for me to see sending “I Voted” sticker to those voting by mail as an important enough issue for legislature to deal with. In fact, it is hard for me to see anything that is mentioned in this article as an important issue. What they can do though is ask voters to bring with them the papers they used to register for voting. Republicans will like it because it adds protection against illegal voting and Democrats will like it because it will not burden voters.

  7. Submitted by Philip Fuehrer on 03/28/2017 - 07:44 pm.

    Elimination of Campaign Finance Public Subsidy Program?

    Meanwhile – in SF605, the Omnibus state government appropriations bill, Republicans are leading the charge to eliminate the State’s Campaign Finance Public Subsidy Program. You know, the program that encourages spending limits on campaigns, encourages candidates to discuss issues rather than feeling the need to be dialing for dollars, and the program that provides solid opportunity for at least a modicum of debate beyond the big two parties – you know, real choice.

    Instead, there’s this attempt, with no coverage, to do away with this public good. Perhaps the only hope is that Gov. Dayton vetoes this bill as, thus far, it’s been wholly partisan.

  8. Submitted by Justin Adams on 03/29/2017 - 07:35 am.

    Clarification needed…

    In-person absentee voting is available for 46 days before each election at the county auditor and city clerk’s office in each election jurisdiction under current law. M.S.203b.081

    It is not correct that voters only have mail option for absentee voting until seven days prior to the election.

    The confusion may have a resulted from a change enacted last year by the legislature.

    Until last year, voters who cast an absentee ballot in-person were required to seal their completed ballot inside of a signature envelope and give that envelope to election officials who opened it on Election Day and placed it in the ballot counter.

    Starting last year in-person absentee voting locations were required to have a ballot counter during the week prior to the election. During that week in-person absentee voters were permitted to place their voted ballot directly into the ballot counter themselves.

    The current proposed change is to allow voters to place that ballot into the counter by themselves throughout the 46 days of in person absentee voting. That will reduce the expense of absentee voting by limiting the supplies that are needed and reducing the administrative time required to process absentee votes but in no way does that proposal increase the number of days that in-person absentee voting is allowed.

  9. Submitted by Patty Seifert on 03/29/2017 - 11:20 am.

    provisional ballots

    The provisional ballots should also be used for all of the same day registrations. Attach the address to the ballot and if it can’t be verified, it is not counted. Take a look at the Coleman/Franken election and the number of same day registration cards that could NOT be delivered after the election. The process was to send out the cards, get the undeliverable ones back, try to ‘fix’ the address; ie street vs avenue vs circle etc or the n/s/e/w designation or whatever. After all of that, there were still over 10,000; I think; that were not deliverable. Those ballots should not have been counted. If some of those were vouched for addresses, the person who vouched should be prosecuted; after all it was that person who said the person voting lived at that legal and correct address.

    To say that there is no voter fraud in MN is unbelievable. It is more correct to say that voter fraud has not been prosecuted, not that it does not happen. There is a case from a few years ago of 10 people living in a laundromat; no voter fraud, really!

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/29/2017 - 08:05 pm.


      Almost every word of your comment is false. And that’s a real problem, because enough people believe these falsehoods or simply don’t care that what they are saying is false, because it justifies their real agenda.

      There is not, and never has been, any evidence of anything more than a handful of voter fraud cases. That is what the facts are. And that is what should be taken into account when making the law – not these falsehoods.

  10. Submitted by John Augustine on 03/30/2017 - 12:06 am.

    June primary in MN would protect incumbents from accountability

    It is a myth that primary turnout sharply dropped because of the switch from September to August. Look at the turnout data for the last three primaries held in September; the decline was well underway as more citizens have become disaffected from political parties. The heyday of primary turnout in this state was before the legislature changed in the mid-1970s to being elected with partisan designation. With recent changes in early-voting law, people who want to cast primary votes before August can do so now, they just don’t see the reason to get involved before the general election.
    The least-reported factors to consider with this change are related to other dates that would change along with the date of the primary–the start of absentee/early voting, and the filing/petition deadline. Anything that forces challengers to decide earlier and campaign longer will deter some potential challengers from filing, especially those who (unlike Gov. Dayton in 2010) lack the resources to self-fund an extended campaign. MN is on the verge of making it easier for legislators, through a 45% salary increase, to forgo some earning opportunities in favor of more time campaigning; most challengers will not receive a similar opportunity. More importantly, having the filing deadline and early-voting periods during legislative session will make it easier for incumbents to evade accountability, since controversial votes could be delayed until after the filing deadline for challengers has passed. Most states surrounding MN do not start their primaries before the session is done. Citizen groups that try to educate the voters about legislators’ performance through reports and scorecards would be faced with having to put out less informative reports, before the session was done, in order for them to be available to voters being asked to decide to vote in an earlier primary.
    Parties would also be hard-pressed to get through all the endorsing conventions before the filing deadline, which would mean that candidates could say they respect the endorsements but not face backlash for filing against party-endorsed candidates. Parties think they will get money earlier with earlier primaries, but they just might enable more politicians to bypass their structure altogether through the earlier filing deadline.

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