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Minnesota's early-voting proposal raises constitutional questions

  • Article by: Baird Helgeson
  • Star Tribune
  • February 20, 2013 - 10:37 PM

 

A proposal to allow early voting in Minnesota reopened old wounds Wednesday over a failed bid to require voters to show photo ID.

The new proposal would allow Minnesota voters to go to a government office and vote up to 15 days before an election, bringing Minnesota in line with more than 30 other states that offer similar early-voting options.

“The main reason I feel this is good public policy to adopt is that many Minnesotans already erroneously assume we have early voting,” said Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, who is sponsoring the bill.

Opponents say the plan would make it easier for people to vote more than once in an election.

“This is extraordinarily dangerous for the integrity of our election system,” said Dan McGrath, executive director of Minnesota Majority and head of last year’s unsuccessful campaign to require Minnesota voters to show photo ID. The political system would become “governed by parties and candidates that cheat the best.”

McGrath said the proposal plainly creates a constitutional problem. Minnesota’s Constitution requires an election to be held on a certain day, not any time up to 15 days before.

Beth Fraser, director of governmental affairs for the Minnesota secretary of state’s office, said her office would research the question. But she compared it to current laws governing absentee voting, under which people can vote early because of an Election Day conflict.

“I don’t believe this changes Election Day,” Fraser said. “Election Day is the day ballots are counted.”

The proposal would allow eligible Minnesotans to vote 15 days before Election Day by going to a selected government office and casting a ballot. As with the current law, voters could register on the same day or, if necessary, have someone vouch for them. Unlike in other states, Minnesota’s system would not allow for early voting at shopping malls or universities.

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who led those backing voter ID, said Sieben’s bill raises “a very important question that has constitutional bearings.”

The argument over the idea reignited simmering tensions about the voter ID proposal, which lost dramatic support in closing months before the November election.

State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, another sponsor of voter ID, raised doubts about the legality of absentee voting. Minnesotans can vote absentee before an election if they are disabled or sick or if they expect to be traveling during an election.

Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, warned Limmer and other legislators against edging toward a constitutional showdown over absentee voting.

“Senator Limmer, you are disenfranchising the vote of every singe member of the military,” Rest said. “I don’t think you want to go there.”

Limmer shot back: “I am not going to sit here and be questioned about my motive and be warned not to go somewhere.”

The hearing was filled with elderly, the disabled and others speaking in favor of early voting.

Christeen Stone, 92, said she looks forward to going to the polls and participating in democracy. But she said that the long lines can be stressful for the elderly and that they should have an early-voting option.

“Seniors take voting very seriously, particular[ly] here in Minnesota,” said Stone, who is a part of an AARP grass-roots advocacy team for elections. “This proud tradition must continue.”

The head of a nonprofit government watchdog group said legislators must ensure the largest number of eligible Minnesota voters can cast a ballot.

“Democracy works best when we are all able to participate,” said Jeremy Schroeder, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota.

Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044

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