The revelation of a high error rate in absentee voting that came from the 2008-09 Coleman-Franken U.S. Senate recount wasn't for naught after all. With strong bipartisan votes on Monday, both the Minnesota House and the Senate approved legislation aimed at reducing errors in casting and processing absentee ballots. Gov. Tim Pawlenty is expected to sign it.
That's a welcome turnaround. Only nine months ago, largely the same bill met with Republican resistance and a gubernatorial veto. By comparison, Monday's bills were approved by an overwhelming preliminary voice vote in the Senate and a 131-2 tally in the House. (Notably, GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer was one of the two dissenters.)
Lawmakers ought to take the time to understand what changed over the interim, and why. The transformation that occurred on the absentee ballot bill and a related measure, moving the primary election to August, is one that needs replication on many fronts.
GOP support was gained for the measures during a sort of "election bill summer camp" for key legislators of both parties, hosted by Lawrence Jacobs at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. Away from lobbyists and leadership pressures, and with local election officials available to assist them, a small group of legislators sifted through the vetoed bill's provisions for improving the absentee balloting process. Jacobs and longtime election administrator Rachel Smith, now of Hennepin County, facilitated their talks.
Further, in July, a Citizens Jury, sponsored by the Jefferson Center and cohosted by DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and GOP Rep. Laura Brod, showed strong public support for the simpler absentee procedures included in the vetoed bill.
Partisan suspicion melted away as the participating legislators came to better understand the bill's provisions. They became more aware of local election administrators' unhappiness with current procedures and their support for the vetoed bill. As Patty O'Connor, Blue Earth County director of taxpayer services, told them, "This is our bill."
As a result of the consensus-building, absentee voters will be less likely to be disenfranchised by error -- their own or a poll worker's. Signature matching, always a subjective matter, will no longer be part of the exercise. Centralized "ballot boards" of trained election workers in counties and larger cities will determine whether a returned ballot's identifying information matches that on an application.
Better still, said O'Connor, is the end of the high-pressure, error-prone practice of delivering absentee ballots from central offices to precinct polling stations late on Election Day. Instead, all absentee ballots will be fed into vote-tabulating machines at central offices.
Must every major partisan issue move "off campus" for supervised, extracurricular study? Valuable as that approach was for election legislation, it's not practical to ask that it become the new norm for every controversial bill.
But it should not be asking too much to bring some ingredients of the election bills' exercise to the day-to-day committee work at the Capitol. Too often, Capitol time is spent posturing for the cameras and scheming about how to score political points on the opposition. Not enough effort is spent painstakingly building bills around elements of bipartisan consensus, and agreeing to forgo those ideas that produce sharp partisan opposition.
The election bills succeeded because a core group of legislators agreed to engage in the hard work of governance, rather than allowing partisan politics to have the last word. Governance isn't as sexy as politics. But it can be a lot more rewarding.