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Continued: Voting-law changes are on DFL minds

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: December 10, 2012 - 5:36 AM

In the perennial political tug-of-war between ballot security and voting access, the advocates of making voting easier in Minnesota are the big winners.

A month after voters shot down the photo ID requirement and the Republican legislative majorities that supported it, the incoming DFL regime at the Capitol has a chance to open up the nation's highest-turnout voting system even further by allowing more pre-Election-Day voting.

But the new legislative committee leaders are vowing to heed DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's demand that any election-law change have broad bipartisan support to earn his signature. That could put the brakes on any move toward "early voting" and may give a boost to a photo ID alternative -- the so-called "electronic poll book" that uses photos in state databases to verify voters' identity.

"This is no time for one political party to ram through an agenda," said Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, a passionate foe of photo ID who is the incoming chair of the House Elections Committee.

His Senate counterpart, Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, agreed. "It's important that election-reform changes be done in a bipartisan way," said Sieben, who will be both assistant Senate majority leader and chair of the Elections Division.

With an all-DFL government for the first time in two decades, the list of possible election-law changes is long: "early voting" or an expansion of the current absentee-voting system to make voting more convenient; modernizing the system through on-line registration and the new poll book technology; addressing the problem of ex-felons voting illegally, possibly by restoring voting rights immediately when they are released from prison; moving the state's primary to June; replacing candidates who withdraw or die late in the election cycle; and limiting the number of state-paid recounts in close races.

When Dayton vetoed a photo ID bill in 2011 that had little DFL support, he wrote in his veto letter: "I will not sign an election bill that comes to me without broad bipartisan legislative support." Katharine Tinucci, the governor's spokeswoman, said that remains his position.

There also is a level of election-law fatigue after the bruising, months-long photo ID battle.

The photo ID constitutional amendment, which was put on the ballot this year without a single DFL vote in favor, lost by a 52-to-46 percent margin on Election Day, and the GOP lost its majorities in the House and the Senate.

"That is saying pretty loud and clear, we don't want any restrictions on the franchise," said Greta Bergstrom, spokeswoman for TakeAction Minnesota, which led the fight against photo ID.

Republican legislator Mary Kiffmeyer of Big Lake, who led the battle for photo ID and will be switching from the House to the Senate in January, has already approached Dayton about working together on the issue. After all, she noted, the ID opponents argued to "send it back" to the Legislature for further work.

"I think the opening is more on how we can have elections run efficiently, and modernized," Kiffmeyer said after meeting with Dayton's staff last week. She likely will play a role in determining how far the GOP minority will go, and said she wants to ensure the state has "a balance of access and integrity."

Early voting gaining

Two issues will illustrate how well the two parties can work together this year: early voting and electronic poll books.

Minnesota's system, already considered fairly open because it requires no ID of registered voters and allows for Election-Day registration, has absentee voting for those who are away from their precinct on Election Day or who are disabled.

But across the country, 32 states -- including every state that borders Minnesota -- allow so-called early voting, in which voters are allowed to cast ballots before Election Day. In the last two presidential elections, up to one-third of all votes were cast this way.

Simon, Sieben and DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie like the idea of casting ballots early, saying it could be a solution to the long lines that afflicted many urban precincts on Nov. 6. "I think the public wants early voting," Sieben said, adding it can be a benefit "for mothers who are busy, or people who travel for work." A coalition of groups that opposed photo ID, including the League of Women Voters, will be lobbying for this change.

Kiffmeyer is wary because such votes could not be changed in the event of a last-minute disaster, such as Sen. Paul Wellstone's death in a plane crash 11 days before the 2002 election, when Kiffmeyer was secretary of state. In that race, the Minnesota Supreme Court ordered new absentee ballots sent to those who requested them so they could recast their votes.

Electronic poll books were pushed by Ritchie and Dayton this year as an alternative to photo ID. Photos already in the state drivers' system would be matched with voters. Those without a match could have their photo taken on the spot.

"One area of common ground could be the issue of poll books on a pilot-project basis, to see how they work," said Simon.

Photo ID's chief lobbyist, Dan McGrath of the Minnesota Majority, supports the electronic poll book idea as a way of ensuring that voters are who they say they are. "We want poll books -- it's pretty much universal," he said. "It's not ideal, but it's better than what we're doing now."

Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester, a member of an elections task force set up by Dayton, said the group has been wrestling with how to prevent felons from voting after they are released from custody but before they have finished the terms of their probation. Such votes are prohibited in Minnesota and account for most of the state's fraudulent votes.

Benson said he believes a bill to make sure felons are notified of the law and of when their rights are restored, and making sure the secretary of state has this information, could win bipartisan support. But he does not believe the GOP would support a North Dakota-style system, where felons regain the right to vote once they are released, regardless of the terms of their probation.

Simon said after the battles over the photo ID and marriage amendments this year, he expects to hear proposals to make it more difficult to pass a constitutional amendment, perhaps by requiring a super majority among legislators to put it on the ballot, or among voters to pass it. But such a change would not be easy -- it would have to go to voters as an amendment to the state Constitution.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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