by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor
Both House and Senate omnibus elections bills have hit the House and Senate floors and are open for what promises to be some lively debate.
House File 894 is authored by Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins. Senate File 677 is authored by Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport. Sieben is also the assistant majority leader in the Senate.
Both Simon and Sieben said bipartisan efforts led to the bills speedily going to their respective floors. They are both very aware that Gov. Mark Dayton has said he will only sign an elections bill that is bipartisan. Both expect their bills to be discussed on the floor late next week or the following week.
In the Senate bill, a provision is provided to move primary elections to the first Tuesday after the third Monday in June. Currently, primary elections are set for August. Sieben said she could go either way on this proposed change of the law. It is a good bill that will help maintain the integrity of Minnesota’s strong election system, Sieben said of the Senate omnibus elections bill, and it has key provisions that Minnesotans support, including the no-excuse provision to allow early voting.
The most controversial part of the House bill may be a section that was added in the latter days of its hearing process. This section, Article 7, deals with Minnesota following nine other states to have Minnesota allocate its electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide popular vote for president. Lead Republican on the House Elections Committee, Rep. Tim Sanders, R-Blaine, said that this part of the bill is likely going to be removed on the House floor.
“This would cause a lot of heartburn” if it remained in the bill, Sanders said. Simon said he still plans to speak on the vote for president as a stand-alone issue.
An interstate compact is both a statute in each state that is a member to the compact and a contract between the member states. Currently, these nine states in the compact represent 132 electoral votes. Minnesota has 10 electoral votes.
Sanders praised the bill-shaping process and said he is confident a bipartisan bill will be achieved.
“It’s up to the caucuses now, but it has been a smooth process,” Sanders said.
Other parts of the House Omnibus elections bill include:
• Article 1: This article incorporates provisions of House File 193 related to no-excuse absentee voting, with modifications. Eligible voters are guaranteed to vote by absentee ballot, regardless of the voter’s reason for doing so.
• Article 2: The article incorporates portions of House File 244 authored by Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, and others. It expands mail balloting for towns of any size to conduct elections by mail. The existing population limitation on this authorization (fewer than 400 registered voters as of June 1 of the election year) would only apply to cities.
• Article 3: This article incorporates provisions of House File 637, authored by Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, enacting the recommendations of the governor’s Task Force on Election Integrity with modifications regarding felons not allowed to vote. County auditors would be required to notify a voter registration applicant of the applicant’s need to reaffirm his or her eligibility to vote, in writing. The commissioner of corrections is also required to provide electronic data to the secretary of state on individuals on probation for a felony offense that would result in the loss of civil rights.
• Article 4: An electronic roster pilot project would be established during the 2013 municipal election cycle. Participating cities are: Minnetonka, Moorhead, St. Anthony, St. Paul and St. Peter. This article also requires the secretary of state to conduct a mock election no later than April 15, 2014.
• Article 5: The article incorporates provisions of House File 591 carried by Rep. Sanders, R-Blaine, and others. The article establishes conditions under which a vacancy in nomination exists for a partisan office.
• Article 6: The article permits individual counties to make their county auditor-treasurer, and in some cases, county recorder, appointed positions. It applies to Kandiyohi, Lake, Clay, Jackson and Lyon counties.
• Article 7: This article enacts into state law an interstate compact related to the election of the president of the United States by national popular vote.
The Senate omnibus elections bill was approved by the Finance Committee on Tuesday and moved to the Senate floor.
The Senate bill has nine articles. They include:
• Article 1: It provides for redistricting of House districts within two Senate districts, 39 and 49 and it modifies the boundaries of the House of Representatives districts 39A and 39B and districts 49A and 49B.
• Article 2: This article authorizes early voting 15 days before an election through the third day before the election.
• Article 3: It allows all voters to vote by absentee ballot without an excuse or reason.
• Article 4: The article modifies the procedures in current law for filling a vacancy in nomination for partisan and nonpartisan offices.
• Article 5: This article makes various changes to election administration, including expanding authorization for cities and towns to conduct mail balloting; amends the thresholds for election recounts paid for with public funds; requires training for polling-place challengers; adopts the Uniform Presidential Electors Act and modifies various aspects of election administration and election procedure, including streamlining procedures, standardizing timelines across elections, removing or amending obsolete provisions, and providing clarification.
• Article 6: The article modifies certain voter registration provisions and election administrative procedures for individuals who have been convicted of a felony. Felony offender data must be provided to the secretary of state. This article also speaks to current law requiring county attorneys to investigate alleged voter fraud to include all law enforcement agencies. The section strikes mandatory prosecution by the county attorney under penalty of a misdemeanor charge and loss of office.
• Article 7: This article moves the primary election date to the first Tuesday after the third Monday in June.
• Article 8: It establishes an electronic poll book pilot project and sets up an electronic roster task force. The pilot project allows participating jurisdictions to use electronic rosters to process Election Day registration, to verify voter registration status or both. The project applies to cities with elections in 2013.
• Article 9: The article appropriates money to the Legislative Coordinating Commission and to the secretary of state to carry out the purposes of the bill.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie is very supportive of many of the provisions of the two omnibus bills, he said. The no-excuse absentee balloting clauses speak to the very busy lives representative of the Minnesota ethic, Ritchie said.
Sanders said there is one sentence Republicans oppose in the no-excuse language. It asks for identification, a Social Security number, Minnesota ID or driver’s license. Another line says, “I have none of the above.” Sanders said the desire is to have that line stricken.
Ritchie also strongly supports the early voting provisions and said they will reduce costs for counties and cities. Early voters will be able to put their ballots in the voting machine, rather than having to fold the ballot and place it into two envelopes. Thirty-eight other states currently have this provision. The allowance of mail balloting could save money and increase turnouts in townships of any size.
The Senate bill has provisions to lower the taxpayers’ costs of recounts. Rather than a recount being called for a vote difference of one-half of a percent, it would now change to one-fourth of a percent. This change will save time and money, Ritchie said.
The felon voting provisions likely will be adjusted in conference committee. A goal of the legislation, Ritchie said, will be to figure out a way data on felons can be made available in digital format.
Ritchie said that many of these changes reflect input from state, county, city and township officials and seek to accommodate different sizes of elections and people and their obligations. Shrinking budgets and rapidly changing technology remains a challenge in trying to keep the state election system modern, Ritchie said.
Minnesota has a potential of 4 million voters.
Howard Lestrud can be reached at [email protected]