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Walz not ruling out imposing universal vote-by-mail for 2020 elections

Lexi Menth of Seattle holds up her vote-by-mail ballot.
REUTERS/Jason Redmond
Lexi Menth of Seattle holds up her vote-by-mail ballot.

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

Gov. Tim Walz
Christine T. Nguyen/MPR News/Pool
Gov. Tim Walz
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.”

Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 05/12/2020 - 08:39 pm.

    “Unilateral Tim” wants to unilaterally take over our elections so he can unilaterally protect our democracy.

    The only thing worse would be for Unilateral Tim turn LTC facilities in to polling places.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/13/2020 - 08:55 am.

      With all due respect, what on earth are you talking about?

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/13/2020 - 10:07 am.

      Some LTC facilities have already been used as polling places. My mother was in one such facility, one that had everything from independent living apartments to full nursing care.

      Being unable to walk, she went to the polling station by wheelchair, but as an avid watcher of CSPAN, she was definitely well-informed about politics and could recognize more members of Congress by sight than I could.

    • Submitted by linda comstock on 05/13/2020 - 12:16 pm.

      Great! I hope it happens.

    • Submitted by Bob Kraemer on 05/13/2020 - 01:49 pm.

      Republicans are TERRIFIED of people VOTING! They KNOW they are in the minority on every major issue. So they come up with ways to make it more difficult for people to Vote! Study after study has proven that Mail-in Ballots do not produce fraud! If that were the case then why is Absentee Balloting acceptable?? Mail-In Voting would allow for people with mobility issues the ability to Vote! People that do not have transportation, or cannot stand or sit in a wheelchair for long periods of time could now be able to Vote! Isn’t it about time we try to give everyone the ability to Vote???

  2. Submitted by Barry Tungseth on 05/13/2020 - 08:50 am.

    I hope it goes, and I can vote by mail. GO FOR IT!

  3. Submitted by Neal Krasnoff on 05/13/2020 - 10:07 am.

    He’s a Governor, not a King. He has no authority to impose anything, other than what the People’s representatives grant him. Even with that, there are constitutional limits.

    • Submitted by kurt nelson on 05/13/2020 - 12:27 pm.

      He is the Governor, and in that capacity he has broad authority to protect the health and welfare of his citizens (granted by the Constitution and decades of Court precedence) – even if you don’t like it. Remember when the dimwit said he alone would force states to open? That passed pretty quickly, cause he didn’t order them to close, and the 10thA only reinforces the Gov’s authority. That power is not limitless, but removing the potential of dying for exercising their rights seems like it fit’s right in there.

      Just sent our ballot in for our June primary, which is the only way to vote here in Montana currently. Nobody is too concerned, cause the only thing that will happen is a fair election.

      • Submitted by Neal Krasnoff on 05/15/2020 - 06:41 am.

        Kurt Nelson asserted: “He is the Governor, and in that capacity he has broad authority to protect the health and welfare of his citizens (granted by the Constitution and decades of Court precedence)”.

        Prove your assertion with the relevant provisions of the Minnesota Constitution, Minnesota Statutes, and case law.

        • Submitted by kurt nelson on 05/15/2020 - 04:30 pm.

          Sure, but I don’t need case law or other cites, it’s the 10thA.

          The 10th gives governors sole policing authority over that states citizens health and safety. Not much to debate there – pretty cut and dry.

    • Submitted by Bob Kraemer on 05/13/2020 - 01:51 pm.

      But you are fine with Trump ignoring the Constitution and acting like a King that cannot be investigated??

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/13/2020 - 03:11 pm.

      As a rule, kings do not try to increase voter turn out. Quite the opposite, if history is any gauge.

  4. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 05/13/2020 - 11:18 am.

    These peacetime emergency decrees need to stop. It’s nice and fine for a short term situation, but there is no excuse for this on a long term basis. Otherwise, why bother having a legislature?

    • Submitted by Bob Kraemer on 05/13/2020 - 01:53 pm.

      Until the Pandemic is done threatening our population we need to have an Emergency Plan in place! We are nowhere near a Peak in cases and deaths in this state but Republicans want to open everything up! Shear insanity!

  5. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 05/13/2020 - 12:01 pm.

    Disappointing the hypocrisy from repubs regarding voter fraud when it was they who did so in NC and possibly GA, not to mention their gerrymandering and efforts to undermine the right to vote in Dem areas.
    Please note…voter fraud doesn’t even entail 1%. It’s between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent.
    The problem for repubs, according to Mitch McConnell is that when many vote, repubs lose. They cannot change their ways to meet the needs of the people, so they undermine one of the main pillars of a democracy…the right to vote.
    Voting by mail would remove many of the repub attempts to undermine our RIGHT to vote.

  6. Submitted by BK Anderson on 05/13/2020 - 12:12 pm.

    Great theoretical question, but the rather hysterical comments above aside, Walz (coming from out-state MN) is extremely unlikely to adopt such a controversial position in the face of the bipartisan bill adopted by the legislature. I suppose if the pandemic were to actually explode in September, this might get put on the table–although heaps of planning are involved, and if all-mail was going to happen it needed to be planned for now.

    But I think Winkler was deputized to definitively answer this question. Repubs put forth a bill that effectively advantages the safety and time of their (more consistent) older voters, while not materially aiding the (less habituated) Dem voters. House Dems went along with it. Advantage Repubs.

    Obviously Newsome, as governor of an actual deep Blue progressive state is in a different position than Walz, who must contend with the only divided legislature in the country. Walz is an experienced politician, who seeks to find common ground while respecting science, unlike the (actual) Unilateral Ruler fomenting national division, rancor and wilful ignorance in DC…

  7. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 05/13/2020 - 12:37 pm.

    Ahh…. Supression of Republican voter supression tactics. Go for it Tim.

  8. Submitted by Rosalie O'Brien on 05/13/2020 - 04:34 pm.

    I grew up in Milwaukee more years ago than I care to admit, and, though heartened by the commitment of its citizens who stood in the rain for hours waiting to vote, was shocked to learn of the political events surrounding the primary election in Wisconsin on April 7. For a well-documented and very well-written piece on the subject of voting by mail, see Why We Need Postal Democracy, at

    The unreasonably political nature of this whole discussion reminds me of the famous utterance of Joseph Nye Welch, special counsel for the U.S. Army, to Joseph McCarthy at a hearing on June 9, 1954: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

    The function of a legislature is other than to manage, let alone thwart, the right of American citizens to vote.That right is constitutional, and not to be nullified, smothered, stamped out, or cleverly frustrated by politicians, regardless of whatever “reason” might be advanced. Yes, as is said above, voting by mail will take a lot of planning, though I just registered for a mail ballot and if the actual voting functions as well as the SoS website does today, Minnesota should be well prepared.

    We in Minnesota are most fortunate to have Governor Walz as our leader. His dedication, wisdom and thoughtfulness will serve us well in whatever action he might choose to take.

  9. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/14/2020 - 07:34 am.

    Hey, what’s with the biased headline? “Impose” vote by mail? Why is MinnPost choosing sides here?

    A neutral editor might have choosen a word like “institute”. But then, we lefties have been letting conservatives work the refs for two generations now, and it shows.

  10. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 05/16/2020 - 07:08 pm.

    And of course “Voting by mail” would be so much more absurd and inconvenient than in the old days when swearing on a bible was enough, along with yelling your choice at the judge!
    Can’t make this stuff up!

  11. Submitted by Gordon Everest on 05/17/2020 - 12:39 pm.

    I have been voting by absentee ballot for several years now with my wife who lives in LTC. The main downside currently is I don’t get a chance to see and consider the final blitz of materials the week just before election day, because I have to meet an early deadline. Perhaps we could say that your vote will be counted if it is POSTMARKED by election day, not received by election day. I know that would delay when we could have a final count but I think it would be worth it. The mail in ballot could be designed to be machine read when received to hasten the process. Of course some would have to be done manually. We would still be able to get an early preliminary result.

  12. Submitted by Howard Miller on 05/17/2020 - 01:08 pm.

    Legislators, the Governor, and Secretary of State should make it as easy as possible to cast a ballot in Minnesota’s elections.

    I don’t care if it helps one party or the other, or some as-yet nonexistent one.

    It is about citizens right to vote, which should not involve scaling unreasonable obstacles, like being forced to vote face-to-face during an incurable deadly disease pandemic

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