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A DFL push to move Minnesota to entirely vote-by-mail is complicating bipartisan efforts around other COVID-related election changes

A bipartisan agreement on an elections bill allocating federal coronavirus response money was derailed when House DFLers moved to create a separate measure that would move Minnesota to all vote-by-mail this year. 

mail-in ballots
Mail-in ballots waiting to be verified at the San Diego County Elections Office on November 7, 2016.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

A pending deal to avoid a growing partisan dispute over conducting all vote-by-mail elections in Minnesota has fallen apart over … all-vote-by-mail elections.

A bipartisan group of House members along with DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon had reached an agreement last week on amendments to an elections bill, House File 3499, that sidestepped controversial issues for both parties — including voter ID, provisional balloting and conducting Minnesota’s statewide primary and general elections via vote-by-mail — but did include provisions for making elections safer amid COVID-19.

The agreement appropriated all the money that has come to the state via the federal Help America Vote Act, including $6.9 million that was included to address the impact of COVID-19, and $7.4 million appropriated to help with voting security in the wake of hacking attempts during the 2016 election. 

Under the deal, the COVID-19 money, which was appropriated via the federal CARES Act, could be spent to open more polls, to provide for extra sanitation of voting places and to encourage more voters to use the state’s existing system of no-excuse absentee balloting, which requires a voter to sign-up before being mailed a ballot.

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Not included, however, was the ability to use the federal money to shift the state to a comprehensive vote-by-mail system, for which each registered voter is automatically mailed a ballot, and something for which U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is seeking additional money in future federal COVID-19 response bills.

The issue has recently become a battleground between Democrats and Republicans nationally and in Minnesota, with Democrats seeing it as the best way to assure safe elections if coronavirus remains a threat and Republicans saying it is prone to voter fraud and claiming it is simply a way to help Democrats win elections. 

Gov. Tim Walz weighed in last week, warning that the type of problems Wisconsin experienced by holding a primary during a stay at home order should not happen in Minnesota. 

Other key provisions of the compromise allow minor parties to electronically collect signatures to place candidates on the ballot; allow candidate declarations to be done online; and permit local election officials to move polling places that are currently in vulnerable locations, such as long-term care facilities or schools.

The compromise bill also gives local officials two weeks before elections to start processing what might be a large increase in the use of no-excuses absentee voting from those leery of going to polling places in the fall. Some analysts have estimated that if voters are given more information — and if signing-up is made easier — the percentage of mailed votes could grow from around a quarter of Minnesota voters to more than half.

The group that advocates on behalf of the state’s county governments, the Association of Minnesota Counties, supports the compromise bill. “Without reasonable and practical changes to election law, Minnesotans may be put in an uncomfortable position of choosing between their own personal health and their fundamental right to vote, should the coronavirus health impacts continue through the election season,” the group wrote in a letter to lawmakers. 

While agreement among Republicans and Democrats on the House State Government Finance subcommittee didn’t guarantee that the GOPers who control the state Senate would go along with the bill, having the endorsement of key House Republicans was important in dispelling accusations that the bill was a partisan effort.

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But that arrangement was disrupted last week when House Republican negotiators were told that while moving Minnesota to all vote-by-mail wouldn’t be part of the compromise bill, House DFLers would be pushing for a floor vote on the issue in a separate bill, which would be placed in an omnibus elections bill, HF 1603

In response, Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, complained last week that after the deal had been reached, he was told by Committee Chair Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, that DFL leadership also wanted a vote-by-mail bill. Though the two measures would move separately, Nash said he feared the vote-by-mail bill would become the default election bill for the session. “I’m disappointed that people who weren’t involved in the negotiations could snap their fingers and change absolutely everything,” Nash said. 

He was referencing House DFL leadership, including House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley, and said the move would cause him to vote “no” on a bill he had helped draft. 

Nash said he supports broadening the use of existing no-excuse absentee voting, but like many Republicans he does not support all vote-by-mail, saying he thinks it opens elections up to fraud.

Secretary of State Steve Simon, who had helped negotiate the compromise, encouraged GOP members of the committee not to be distracted by what he termed the “shiny object” — the separate all vote-by-mail bill. “This compromise is not everything that I wanted,” Simon said. “It is far short of what I wanted, and I continue to think the safest way to conduct an election in a pandemic is to do the full, automatic, vote-by-mail.” 

But he also knows that wouldn’t pass the Legislature due to GOP objections, so he wants the negotiated bill “to give Minnesotans some comfort at a time of pandemic.”

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Despite the bipartisan aspect of the deal falling apart, the bill itself passed out of the subcommittee, though on a party-line vote, and the same committee will also take up the vote-by-mail bill Monday. Both bills are headed toward the full Ways and Means Committee Wednesday and eventual floor votes.

Rep. Raymond Dehn, the Minneapolis DFLer who is chair of the House Elections subcommittee, said he expects the compromise bill will likely pass the House. And since the GOP-controlled Senate dislikes vote-by-mail, that issue will probably die, leaving the compromise bill alive.

The compromise legislation is probably the best that either party can hope to get passed, he said. And while he thinks staffing and operating polling places will be difficult come fall, reducing the numbers of in-person voters is a worthy goal. “If there’s a way we could get to 60 percent (absentee voting),” Dehn said, “we reduce the number of people in the polls, which might make it manageable.”

“I and the House leadership and many local election officials think the best thing to do would be all vote-by-mail,” Dehn said. “But the GOP is saying ‘No, no way can we support that.’”

Winkler echoed Dehn’s assessment. “Vote-by-mail is the better way to do things and we would hold out hope of getting that in final session negotiations, but the backup is what I would describe as ‘make do,’ ” Winkler said. “We need options.”

And even if it’s unlikely to emerge from end-of-session deal-making due to GOP objections, said Winkler, DFLers think it’s still worth pursuing: “We don’t know what all will be in play as we get closer to May 19. It would be foolish to give up without trying.”