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Even with DFL in control, election overhaul needs GOP support

  • Article by: Rachel E. Stassen-Berger
  • Star Tribune
  • March 16, 2013 - 12:23 AM

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has given Republicans virtual veto power over changes to Minnesota’s election laws, which could doom Democratic proposals to advance early voting.

Although Democrats control the Legislature and have offered support for early voting, the governor of their own party has pledged not to sign any election measure that lacks “broad bipartisan support.”

So far, Republicans have been cool to the idea of letting voters go to polling places before Election Day.

“Any changes in election laws need broad bipartisan support so, to be honest, I haven’t looked into the details of each of the proposals yet because I’m waiting to see if anything is going to move forward on that basis,” Dayton said this week.

“If it has that bipartisan support, that’s a pretty good indicator that it is good for Minnesota, good for election participation and protects the integrity, both of which are laudable goals,” he said, explaining the standard he has held since he took office.

That is an unusual dictum at a time when election procedures have become sharply partisan, bringing political parties repeatedly to courts around the country to fight out who, when and how people can vote.

“It is a way of tamping down the voting wars, by saying, ‘You guys better get your act together, or there’s not going to be any chance,’ ” said Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law.

Hasen said the most states that have adopted election overhauls have done so when one party is in control of the governor’s office and the Legislature. Although there is one-party control in Minnesota, that’s no guarantee of success given Dayton’s standard.

The governor’s rule, which extends to all election measures but not to other issues, comes as early voting has gained in popularity across the country. It also has support of a majority of Minnesota voters.

According to a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll last month, 54 percent of Minnesotans support the idea of early voting. But, like in the Legislature, the poll found that Democrats were far more likely to support early voting than Republicans. According to the poll, 77 percent of Democrats said Minnesota should adopt early voting and 55 percent of Republicans said it should not.

Last year, Republican lawmakers, when they were in charge, went around the governor to force the issue of photo ID for voting. The governor had vetoed the measure in part because it lacked Democratic support so GOP lawmakers put it on the ballot for voters to decide the issue. That required no gubernatorial sign off. Ultimately, voters rejected the idea of photo ID.

Some lawmakers find Dayton’s bipartisan requirement unfortunate.

“We are still working to gain bipartisan support on a package that includes early voting,” said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport. She said she would be “happy to try to influence” Dayton on the definition of bipartisanship. “I think bipartisan support can come in a variety of different ways.”

House Elections Committee Chair Steve Simon said he is also still assessing what exactly Dayton’s bipartisan rule will require. He’s hopeful early voting will meet it in one way or another this year.

“I think in the end that and others will be part of a bigger global bargain,” said Simon, DFL-Hopkins.

Dayton’s stance follows that of his Republican predecessor Tim Pawlenty, who also demanded bipartisan support for election law changes.

“Whatever makes it easier for people to vote so that more people vote as long as the integrity of the system is protected, I would be supportive of,” Dayton said this week. “But, again, we will have to see what’s possible.”

Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-Fridley, is sponsoring the House version of an early voting bill, which would allow voters to go to polling places 15 days before Election Day and cast ballots. The measure could be to be bottled up because of Dayton’s rule.

“It’s disappointing that we don’t have the opportunity to move some really sound policies forward,” said Bernardy. “But it is the environment in which we are working.”

But Rep. Tim Sanders, the Republican lead on the House Elections Committee, said the governor’s policy has forced the sometimes warring parties to get along.

“You have to start where you agree and see how far that road will take you,” said Sanders, R-Blaine. “Perhaps it could be a model in other committees. You have to find a way to work together.”

Despite the opposition to early voting among Republicans in the Legislature, it is likely that Minnesotans will join other states in making voting before Election Day a little easier.

A plan to allow any voter to cast an absentee ballot, whether or not the voter will be absent from the polling place on Election Day, is on the move in the Legislature. Called no-excuses absentee balloting, the measure has garnered the bipartisan support Dayton said he will require.

“We think that that is more palatable,” said Sanders.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @RachelSB

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