Democratic legislators are pushing a package of election proposals aimed at increasing voter turnout across Minnesota.
The menu of proposals, unveiled Thursday by Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, includes granting voting rights to felons who have been released from prison, adopting automatic voter registration and, potentially, requiring that Minnesotans vote by mail in next year's presidential primary.
Such proposals have emerged as popular among Democrats looking to increase participation, particularly among traditionally disenfranchised communities, and flash points in the national debate over voting rights and election integrity.
Simon and DFL legislators framed the package, which also included funding for election security and changes to the 2020 primary rules, as necessary for boosting Minnesota's high voter registration and participation rates even higher.
"For far too long, too many Minnesotans have been left out of this process," said Rep. Raymond Dehn, D-Minneapolis, who will chair the House Subcommittee on Elections. "The more people we include, while at the same time keeping the integrity of the system in place, is something that will benefit us all."
Republicans are open to some changes, particularly proposals to tighten cybersecurity.
"As a former secretary of state, protecting the integrity of our elections is very important to me," said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, chairwoman of the State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee.
One of the most far-reaching proposals would automatically add Minnesotans who have dealings with government agencies, such as Minnesota's Driver and Vehicle Services, to state voter rolls unless they opt out. The system, used in 15 states, was touted as a low-cost way to get more people registered.
"It's a no-brainer in my opinion," said Sen. Carolyn Laine, D-Columbia Heights, who also serves on the policy and elections committee. "This is just Democracy 101: everyone registered to vote in an easy way."
DFL lawmakers also want to restore voting rights to an estimated 60,000 felony offenders who have been released from prison but cannot now cast a ballot. Reversing felony disenfranchisement laws has gained steam, and headlines, as a civil rights issue in recent years, as states ranging from Maryland to Florida moved to allow felons to vote while on parole or probation. Supporters argue that bans, which disproportionately affect black Americans, hurt efforts to reintegrate offenders into communities and civic life.
Both ideas drew swift rebuke from some Republicans. Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said he has "grave concerns" about the ideas. Nash, who serves as House GOP lead on the elections, is wary of lessening consequences for felonies. He also worries that registering those who have no interest in voting could allow people to "game the system."
"I just think that if you enroll somebody who may not want to actually vote … they're just getting a driver's license, that's a potential vector for voting fraud," Nash said.
Other proposed changes were crafted in response to Minnesota's upcoming shift from presidential caucuses to primaries. Under the new system, voters will have to select a primary ballot from one party. Whether they chose to vote in a Democratic or Republican contest would be subject to public disclosure laws.
Simon and other DFL lawmakers want to change the law to keep voters' party choices shielded from public view while still providing the data to political parties, a step lawmakers said is required by nomination rules. Simon also floated the idea of conducting the primary via mail-in ballots to reduce costs. Nash also panned those ideas. A mail election would strip Minnesotans of their right to experience voting in person, he said, while rendering primary ballot choices secret would be "essentially creating a private database, and that's troublesome."
Previous governors, including outgoing DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, have insisted that voting changes have broad bipartisan backing. And any proposal would need support from Republicans controlling the state Senate in order to pass.
Kiffmeyer said more funding for cybersecurity has bipartisan support, but "we probably won't agree on some of these other ideas that are untested and controversial."
Still, Simon said his hope is to work with Republicans to come to bipartisan agreement sooner rather than later.
"The next major election is not in August of 2020 or November of 2020; it's in March of 2020, 14 months away," Simon said. "Unless we make some changes quickly, we could have some problems."