"Have we ever seen a legislative session like this?" asked a friend who knows my fascination with the workings of representative democracy in these parts.
Well, yeah, I replied. There was a similar giddy-up session exactly 50 years ago, in 1973. That was the first time in state history that DFLers controlled the governorship and both chambers of the Legislature, as they do this year. Then and now, DFLers brought to the Capitol desires and demands that had accumulated through many years of divided government. In both cases, a lawmaking gusher ensued.
"But are DFLers passing bills that are extreme?" my friend fretted.
If he didn't want a story in response, I figured, he shouldn't have asked. Here's the one I told:
Among DFL concerns a half-century ago was that voter turnout was declining in the state's larger cities — places with plenty of DFL affinity. The downturn was attributed to a pre-election voter registration requirement that had been imposed in 1959 on cities with more than 10,000 people. Smaller-population places had been spared the sign-up rule.
The 1973 DFL majorities and Gov. Wendell Anderson set out to level the field by creating the first statewide voter registration system. Every voter would need to register. But voters would not need to do so in advance. The bill allowed for registration at the polls on Election Day.
That measure passed despite plenty of Republican criticism, and Anderson signed it on May 24, 1973 — one day before a similar measure was enacted in Maine. Minnesota had secured bragging rights as the first in the nation to adopt "same-day" registration.
Going where no state had gone before on voter registration could fairly have been deemed extreme in 1973. It doesn't look that way today. Despite 50 years of almost nonstop Republican complaints, same-day registration is widely accepted. It's a proven boon to turnout, and has been adopted in 21 other states and the District of Columbia.
By comparison, the key voter registration change DFLers seek this year doesn't break much new ground. It's known as automatic registration. The idea is a variation on something Minnesota enacted in 1987. It was called "motor voter" because it allows people to register as they apply for driver's licenses or other state government services.
Today, to register in such settings, voters must "opt-in" by completing an application form. Under the proposed change, voters would need to mark a form to "opt out" and decline to be registered. Unless they decline, the information they supply for other government programs would be used for election purposes too.
This isn't a new or bold idea. It might have been back in 2009 when it was first approved in this state by a DFL-controlled Legislature, only to be vetoed by GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty. If that bill had become law, Minnesota would have been first in the nation with such a system. Instead, if the bill that's winding its way through legislative committees becomes law this year, Minnesota will join 22 states plus the District of Columbia with automatic registration.
The case that Secretary of State Steve Simon makes for the bill isn't partisan. It's practical. He notes that some 164,000 Minnesota voters registered on Election Day in 2020, creating long lines at the polls. Automatic registration would reduce that number "by 80 or 90 percent," he predicted.
"The most challenging job for an election judge is to process same-day registrations. It holds things up," Simon told me recently. Getting more people registered to vote before an election "would make for a smoother experience for people who go to the polls and people who work at the polls."
It would seem that a party that has long been suspicious of registration at the polls would welcome a change that gets more people on voter rolls in advance. Yet the elections bill that includes automatic registration has found no GOP backers to date.
That makes it just like nearly every other issue of note in the 2023 session.
Watch for it: The label "extreme" is going to be slapped on scores of actions taken by this year's DFL majorities — even changes that are relatively minor or have been vetted for years. Republicans appear to believe that Minnesotans weren't paying attention during decades of legislative gridlock. And they may be right.
My friend's question tells me that one can't assume that Minnesotans know how tried-and-tested ideas like automatic voter registration are, or how long reasonable people have labored to put them in law. The DFLers' challenge is not only to enact such long-awaited measures, but to sell them.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer and author. Her books include "Turnout: Making Minnesota the State that Votes," also by Joan Anderson Growe, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2000.