Republicans in the Minnesota House of Representatives indicated they have no interest in shifting the state to an all vote-by-mail system as a way of assuring that the 2020 primary and general election won’t be disrupted by COVID-19.
That opposition — expressed during a meeting of the House Elections Subcommittee Wednesday — suggests that the party will block any substantial changes. While some said they favored promoting more use of existing absentee and early voting options, their fear of voter fraud has made GOP lawmakers a “no” on vote-by-mail.
That position matches national GOP stance against expanding vote-by-mail, opposition that includes President Trump, despite the fact that three of the five states that already have vote-by-mail — Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Utah and Colorado — have Republicans as their chief election officer, and that Washington’s Kym Wyman is a national leader in the vote-by-mail movement.
The $2.2 trillion federal COVID-19 stimulus bill included $400 million for the states to respond to challenges to elections caused by the virus, though language pushed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar and others to direct that money to vote by mail was not included in the package.
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon has backed a bill that would permit the shift to all vote-by-mail during periods of peacetime emergency due to infectious disease outbreaks. That would mean that every voter in Minnesota, not just the 130,000 who currently get a mail ballot every election because they live in small towns and townships with fewer than 400 voters, would receive a ballot in the mail.
While there would still be some voting centers open on election day for same-day registration or for voters who need assistance voting, there would be far fewer physical polling locations than the 3,000 that the state currently uses. About 3 million Minnesotans voted in person, either via early voting or on election day, in recent elections.
Simon, along with local elections officials from across the state, told committee members Wednesday they do not think they will be able to staff the state’s current voting system if COVID-19 is still restricting public gatherings. The suggestion shared by some Republicans on the committee — that the state double the number of polling places to make each less crowded — would only exacerbate the staffing shortages they anticipate, the election officials said. Counties also lack the voting equipment that would be needed for new polling places.
“Until we are told otherwise, we need to treat elections in Minnesota as a public health issue,” Simon told the committee, which met by teleconference. “Because if we guess right now and guess that the crisis will go past us and that it will be over by August or there won’t be a wave two in November and if we guess wrong, we’re in for a real disaster of an election season.”
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is suggesting that states move toward mail voting to reduce contact among voters, poll workers and the sharing of pens and other equipment. Simon said that the average polling place in Minnesota sees 1,000 voters over 13 hours, so even doubling the number of polling places only reduces that average to 500 people. He also said that poll workers, who tend to be older, would be especially vulnerable to coronavirus.
“We can spend some of this (federal ) money on hand sanitizers and wiping down tables and all the rest and that might, on the margins, help people feel a little more comfortable,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re kidding anyone that if we spend a bunch of money on hand sanitizers and disposable pens that people are going to be comfortable en masse to the tune of millions going to polling places.”
In his remarks, Simon also referenced the Tuesday one-day session of the Legislature, during which dozens of lawmakers voted remotely to avoid unnecessary contact with each other. “That was the right call,” he said. “But you can understand how it might be reasonable for a Minnesotan to ask if legislators have given themselves the privilege of not co-mingling with a few dozen colleagues, doesn’t it stand to reason to have a discussion for them to do the same.”
Deborah Erickson, the administrative services director for Crow Wing County and the chair of the elections committee of the Minnesota Association of County Officials, supported the bill. She said it is unlikely counties can double their polling places, double their equipment and double their staffing to achieve less crowding at the polls. “A significant number of our judges are in at-risk populations and we already have difficulty finding enough election judges,” Erickson said.
Republicans, both on and off the committee, were having none of it.
“I am diametrically opposed to the language that we’ve got before us,” said Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, who is the ranking Republican on the elections subcommittee. “I don’t think you’re gonna find a lot of support coming out of the GOP for this.”
Nash said the response that could get bipartisan support would be expanding the use by voters of no-excuse absentee voting and in-person early voting. He also suggested increasing the number of polling places and perhaps installing plexiglass shields for poll workers similar to those being used in some grocery stores.
“By all accounts, this is slowing right now and things are trending in the right direction,” said Rep. Anne Neu, R-North Branch, of the COVID-19 crisis. Yet the bill would set May 1 as the date when a switch to vote-by-mail would be triggered.
Susan Shogren Smith, an elections attorney who identified herself as a Republican, said she thinks that “by November this crisis will hopefully not be a crisis anymore. Many people in Minnesota will already have been exposed and probably have immunity,”she said. “We have almost seven months to get to that point.”
She also said Simon’s proposal only exacerbates distrust of the secretary of state by many Republicans, a claim that Nash agreed with.
Two reactions from outside the committee illustrated how unlikely any change will win GOP support. Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, the Big Lake Republican who chairs the Senate committee that oversees election law, said less sweeping changes could be done.
“Thankfully, Minnesota already has one of the most robust no-excuse absentee ballot request processes in the country,” said Kiffmeyer, a former secretary of state, suggesting that the state move up its application process for those ballots. She also agreed that setting up polling places in places where elderly people and other vulnerable populations live would be wise.
“I believe Minnesota can safely do both large-scale absentee voting and election day voting at polling locations with current law and some bi-partisan adjustments where needed,” Kiffmeyer said.
State GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan was more harsh in her assessment of the vote-by-mail proposal. “As our nation grapples with a new normal filled with stress, anxiety and illness, Secretary of State Steven Simon’s push to change our voting system just adds to the chaos,” Carnahan said. “Attempting to change a law now for elections that are months away is extremely premature and a disappointing power grab by the Democrats at a time of extreme unease.”