Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon unveiled legislation Wednesday to expand mail-in voting and reduce in-person polling places during the coronavirus pandemic, which could stretch into the summer and fall elections.
Simon's proposal, presented during a virtual meeting of the Minnesota House Subcommittee on Elections, would make "temporary, one-time" changes that would automatically send registered voters mail-in ballots and allow extra time for election administrators to process the votes. Simon said the changes would be in effect only during the peacetime state of emergency declared by Gov. Tim Walz and that witnesses would be required for voting in order to combat fraud.
Similar mail-in ballot initiatives have been resisted by Republicans at the state and national level, including in Wisconsin, where thousands of voters spent hours in line outside polling places Tuesday.
Simon framed his proposal as a public health measure meant to avoid what he described as Tuesday's "disaster" in Minnesota's neighboring state.
"After talking with elections professionals from all levels of government throughout the state, the goal became very clear to me: We need to minimize exposure at polling places and maximize voting by mail," Simon said in a statement.
Simon's plan would change the location of some polling places, many of which are in vulnerable locations such as senior care facilities. On Wednesday, Simon said about 43 polling places were centered in senior living high-rises, nursing homes and care facilities.
Under the proposal, Simon's office also would accept candidate filings by e-mail, fax, or U.S. mail instead of in person. Ballot-access petitions could be submitted with digital signatures.
"I hope we can all rise to the moment," Simon said. "People will look back at this time and wonder what we did to make things better — and whether we put others before ourselves and our own interests. Now we need to look to solutions that match the scope and scale of the problem."
The battle over mail-in ballots came to a head this week in Wisconsin, where the Democratic governor's order permitting voting by mail was blocked by a GOP majority on the state Supreme Court.
Simon's proposal faced immediate opposition from state GOP lawmakers skeptical that Minnesota's existing laws governing absentee voting were not already sufficient to safely administer this year's elections.
Republicans in the House and Senate have voiced concerns that new election laws would clear the way for new opportunities for voter fraud.
"The way the bill sits today does allow for heavy electioneering, and that is something we want to avoid," said state Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia. He instead proposed expanding the number of polling places to reduce the number of people congregating at one site.
"That is why we can't support this, because it is going to provide for a lot of electioneering and it does open the door for election fraud."
Simon wants to use Minnesota's share of the $400 million in election-related funding approved for states by Congress as part of the $2.2 trillion relief package passed last month. Minnesota's portion must be approved by the Legislature before Simon's office can use the money.
Simon expressed concern that Minnesota could encounter a shortage of poll workers, many of whom skew older and therefore are more vulnerable to COVID-19.
He said the state relies on about 30,000 poll workers to staff polling places during statewide elections.
Roughly a quarter of all Minnesota voters voted by mail in 2018. Even if that rate doubled this year, Simon said, too many voters would be gathering at polling places across the state.
The secretary of state's proposal has the backing of the Minnesota Association of County Officers, which warned Wednesday that current social-distancing guidelines would not be possible in many polling places statewide this fall.
"A strong portion of statewide polling places are located in facilities that may not be available if the pandemic is still limiting establishments, and a significant number of election judges statewide have expressed concerns about potential exposure to COVID-19 or fall into an at-risk category," said Deborah Erickson, Crow Wing County's administrative services director.
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755