Republicans and DFLers in the Minnesota Legislature engaged in a fair amount of back-patting last week, praising their work on a bipartisan measure to shore up elections amid COVID-19.
The heart of the deal, which ended a two-year debate over how the state will spend federal Help American Vote Act money and grant funds for COVID-related election costs, revolved around what each side gave up: DFLers relented on their desire to shift the state to all vote-by-mail elections this, and Republicans stopped pushing provisional voting and voter ID.
All of which has tended to obscure a potentially important question. Even after signing the bill, could Gov. Tim Walz do what California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom did last week: namely, impose an all vote-by-mail election via executive order under his peacetime emergency powers?
The answer appears to be … maybe.
In fact, Walz has not dismissed the possibility of imposing universal vote-by-mail for either the August primary or the November general election and is leaving a decision open to see what is happening with the virus as those elections approach.
“The governor supports universal mail-in voting, especially during this pandemic and considering a second wave of COVID-19 could hit this fall ahead of the November election,” said Walz press secretary Teddy Tschann when asked if the governor might follow Newsom’s lead and use his powers under the state of emergency to impose all vote-by-mail this year. “He is considering next steps in how to ensure Minnesotans are safely able to exercise their right to vote.”
Democrats nationally have been supporting universal vote-by-mail as a way to give voters confidence in elections, as well as to keep both voters and workers from congregating in thousands of polling places on election day. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been one of the most prominent voices calling for more federal funding to help states make the change.
Advocates of universal vote-by-mail point to Wisconsin, which held its primary after an attempt to conduct the election via universal mail-in-ballot lost in court. Long lines resulted because poll workers refused to work and polling places had to be combined. There are also positive COVID-19 cases that state health officials attribute to the election.
Republicans, both in the state and nationally, have opposed universal vote by mail. Their objections often point to fears about voter fraud, but President Trump has also complained that moving to universal vote-by-mail helps turn out Democratic voters, something that hasn’t shown up in post-election studies of vote-by-mail elections.
The compromise recently passed by the Legislature and signed by Walz Tuesday evening does give money for the secretary of state and local elections officials to promote the state’s existing no-excuses absentee program, which the state hopes voters will take advantage of to decrease in-person voting. That promotion will likely include mailings to all voters informing them of the program and perhaps including the application form. The bill also allows the secretary of state to help local elections offices hire extra people they need to process applications and ballots.
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said this week he has not had any conversations with Walz about imposing universal vote-by-mail, adding that he expects the governor to sign the compromise bill, House File 3429, soon.
Simon had proposed that the state shift to universal vote-by-mail this year but gave up when it became clear it wouldn’t pass the GOP-controlled Senate. He supports the compromise bill, however, and sees it as necessary for a safe election and to instill confidence in voters.
Simon said he read about Newsom’s action “with interest” but is assuming that the bill passed Saturday will determine how elections are held this year. “As far as I’m concerned, at least for now, this bill is our marching orders,” said Simon.
A spokesman for Attorney General Keith Ellison said the office has not been asked to research the issue and doesn’t have an opinion.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said he doesn’t know whether a Minnesota governor could order an all-mail election under a peacetime state of emergency. He hopes he doesn’t, though.
“I don’t think the question is so much whether the governor has the authority,” Winkler said. “I just think it would be a very bad idea for the executive to take unilateral action to change the election system in a pandemic or any other circumstance. We’re passing legislation with support from Republicans and Democrats to allow our local election officials some flexibility and additional funding to make sure our elections can be conducted in a safe way.”
“While I support mail-in balloting for this pandemic year, that is not something that one state elected official should be able to do unilaterally,” Winkler said.
One of the Republicans who worked out the compromise deal, Rep. Jim Nash of Waconia, said that if Walz does enact vote-by-mail on his own, “he will be telling the Legislature that he has no interest in honoring the bipartisan work that went into the 2020 COVID-19 election bill we worked on,” and that it “sends a message to Minnesotans who encouraged us to achieve a bipartisan bill that their opinion doesn’t matter.”
Even before Newsom’s order, California had a different approach to vote-by-mail. The state’s counties already decide on their own whether to use all-mail voting, and 14 already have.
Newsom’s recent order also mandated that voting centers remain open statewide so that voters who wish to vote in person can do so. California also has large Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.
Simon said this week he and local elections officials are already talking about what to do with the additional money sent by Congress for elections during a pandemic. He said the money could be used to purchase sanitizing equipment, personal protective equipment, to establish more separation in polls and even purchase disposable pens.
One problem officials already know they will confront: finding the 30,000 poll workers needed for election day. The normal pool of workers is largely made up of retirees, many of whom are among the population most vulnerable to COVID-19. Money could be spent to recruit new workers for the elections, but Simon said any shortage will become apparent in June when counties begin their training sessions for polling place workers.
He said local offices will also need to prepare for a “tidal wave” of mailed ballots. Starting Wednesday, voters can submit applications to receive a mail-in absentee ballot. The new law gives counties and cities more time to process them before elections.
Simon said the costs will be broken down this way: people, paper and postage. “It’s gonna be a banner year for people who print envelopes,” Simon said. The state and locals are still considering how best to promote no-excuse absentee voting.
Iowa, for example, sent an application to every voter. Others are using a cheaper option of a postcard to voters telling them about the program and giving state and local election websites.
Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, the Big Lake Republican who chairs the Senate State Government Committee that has jurisdiction over elections, said she prefers something closer to the latter option.
“There is no funding in his bill for the secretary of state to send an application to every voter in the state of Minnesota,” she said. “That would be a huge price tag to do a statewide mailing. I think a much better use of that money is to educate voters on the availability and to buy personal protective equipment for poll workers and voters.”