A compromise and temporary change to Minnesota state election law easily passed the Senate Thursday and is expected to be approved by the House soon. The purpose of the bill is to provide measures that will allow for elections to be safely held in August and November — even under the threat of continued or resurgent COVID-19 pandemic.
While both parties praised the deal, what was most striking about the bill wasn’t in it: The legislation doesn’t include provisions for holding the 2020 primary and general elections entirely by mail, which GOP lawmakers had opposed.
The Senate vote ratified a deal that had been worked out among Secretary of State Steve Simon and DFL and GOP lawmakers on the House subcommittee on elections. DFLers gave up on all-vote-by-mail and Republicans backed off attempts to tie the appropriation of $17 million in federal funding — money allocated after the 2016 election and from the federal CARES Act passed in March — to two measures that DFLers adamantly oppose: requiring voters to show a photo ID to vote and the creation of a provisional balloting system for those whose voter registration is questioned.
What is left in the bill, House File 3429, is the money — and how to spend it. The main provision expands the voluntary use of no-excuse absentee voting. About a quarter of Minnesota voters take advantage of that voting method, which allows someone to receive mailed ballots each election after a one-time application.
Secretary of State Steve Simon and county elections officials throughout Minnesota will be able to use some of the new money to promote Minnesota’s no-excuse absentee ballot system in the hope of boosting its use to 50 percent or even 60 percent of the total vote in the upcoming elections. That would reduce the use of in-person voting at polling places at a time when — because of fears over COVID-19 — staffing those sites with poll workers is expected to be difficult.
The money can also be used to sanitize polling places, install plexiglass protection for workers, put hand sanitizing stations in place and even offer single-use pens for voters. The bill also allows more time for counties to process mailed ballots and to close polling places close to vulnerable populations, such as in nursing homes. A Senate amendment to the bill also directs schools to be used for polling places only as a last resort.
For minor parties in Minnesota, the bill responds to concerns about gathering signatures for ballot placement amid COVID-19. Gathering signatures at street fairs, public beaches and festivals — places the parties would normally visit to collect names — won’t be an option during the May and June signature gathering time period this year. Under the bill, therefore, minor parties will be able to use electronic signature gathering to collect the support they need to get on the ballot for the 2020 election.
Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, the Big Lake Republican who chairs the Senate state government committee, said the bill lets voters use either the mail or polling places as they have for several years. “For us and for all Minnesota voters, we look forward to a safe and secure election,” Kiffmeyer said.
Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, has been a major supporter of shifting to all-mail voting in light of the pandemic. He and others cited problems during Wisconsin’s April 7 presidential primary, which was held in person after the Supreme Court there blocked attempts to delay. Many of that state’s polling places were closed for lack of poll workers, which led to long lines and more crowding, and state health officials have said 67 people got COVID-19 after going to the polls during the election.
Thursday, however, Frentz acceded to political realities and endorsed the compromise bill. “We’re talking about unprecedented times,” Frentz said. “What we want to do for Minnesotans is simple, the easier we make it for them to vote the more will vote and the more Minnesotans who vote the more the result will reflect the will of the people. And this bill is a good start.”
Later Thursday, Kiffmeyer was asked about the concerns of county elections officials that they already have trouble staffing elections and expect that to worsen, since many poll workers are retirees. Older residents are more susceptible to suffering the worst effects of COVID-19.
“I’m putting out a call to all you young people,” she said. “We need you to step up to be election judges. Help out your grandma and your grandpa.”