In a new book that’s part political memoir and part treatise on threats to voting rights, Joan Anderson Growe writes: “Voting is a right, not a privilege.”
But perhaps another line in “Turnout” crystallizes Growe’s approach to voting even better: “Election policies should aim to facilitate voting, not impede it.”
That’s the philosophy Growe brought to Minnesota elections, which she oversaw for 24 years as the state’s secretary of state, from 1975 to 1999.
She was a highly respected elections administrator, selected as an impartial observer for contentious foreign elections — including South Africa’s first post-apartheid election — and viewed as so competent and evenhanded here in Minnesota that she was reelected five times. As a measure of her popularity, she outpolled her opponents by an astounding average of 22 percentage points.
Now “Turnout: Making Minnesota the State That Votes” arrives just as the issue of voting rules has been thrown into the maw of the presidential election, with competing claims of voter suppression and voter fraud, and warnings that our democracy is imperiled.
Though she brings a calm voice to the hyperpartisan debate, Growe aligns with fellow Democrats (the foreword is by Hillary Clinton) in arguing that voter suppression — not “exceedingly rare” voter fraud — is the truly grave danger.
Growe says that the creeping spread of barriers to voting — such as photo ID and aggressive purging of voter rolls — is what prompted her to write “Turnout” (with retired Star Tribune editorial writer Lori Sturdevant) two decades after leaving office.
Growe’s legacy — and Minnesota’s — is the obverse of current trends. She recounts how in 1973 Minnesota was first in the nation to enact Election Day voter registration, likely the biggest reason Minnesota’s turnout has been tops in the nation in virtually every presidential and midterm election since then.
At Growe’s urging, Minnesota also passed the “motor voter” law in 1987, requiring that voter registration forms be distributed along with motor vehicle registration and income tax forms. Six years later Congress approved a similar law.
Growe also explains the back story to the iconic red and white “I Voted” stickers that she introduced, and which have been an Election Day accessory worn by Minnesotans since 1992.
The wisdom of other measures she advocated wasn’t accepted until years after she left office, such as “no-excuses” absentee voting, passed in 2013.
Growe was heartened by voters’ rejection in 2012 of a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have required presenting a photo ID in order to vote. Republican proponents said it was a reasonable anti-fraud measure, but Growe sees it as a maneuver to disenfranchise groups that disproportionately lack ready access to such IDs — the elderly, poor and people of color.
Though Republicans likely will take issue with some of Growe’s conclusions and her prescriptions for fostering voting, surely everyone can find common ground in celebrating her role in blazing a path for women in the early 1970s. Her vivid, sometimes humorous behind-the-scenes stories, including a chapter devoted to her unsuccessful 1984 U.S. Senate race, are a valuable addition to Minnesota’s political history record.
Raised in the Twin Cities and then Buffalo, Minn., where her father was mayor, Growe married young into what turned into an abusive relationship. Divorced, impoverished and raising three youngsters, she briefly relied on welfare between teaching jobs.
By the late 1960s, she had remarried, settled in Burnsville and was doing substitute teaching when she joined what she considered “the most important group a woman could join” then — the League of Women Voters.
At first, running for office herself was beyond comprehension. “As I grew up, I did not know of a single woman in any elective office, local, state, or federal.”
But through her work with the league, “I found the courage and resources to act on my values.” After her family had moved to Minnetonka, Growe and a platoon of other feminists set their sights on a Minnesota House seat, and took on the dismissive, overconfident local Democratic and Republican male political establishment. Reminding us what female politicians faced in the early 1970s, Growe recalls the sexist questions she was asked as she campaigned: Who will mind your kids if you win? What does your husband think of your candidacy?
Overcoming all that, Growe shockingly was elected as a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Republican area. “Joan Growe won? Who’s Joan Growe?” the House Democratic leader asked on election night.
Elected secretary of state just two years later, Growe became the first woman in Minnesota elected to a statewide office in her own right. (One was elected earlier, after she had been appointed to complete the term of her deceased husband.)
Growe was such a curiosity, she writes, that when she traveled the state for meetings with local election officials, their wives sometimes attended, too, because they wanted a glimpse of such a rarity.
When Growe first ran for office, there was only one woman among the 201 legislators in St. Paul. Today, though far from full equality, one of every three legislators is a woman. That progress is thanks to pioneers like Joan Anderson Growe — now age 85 — who pried open the doors to the State Capitol.
Dennis J. McGrath is a retired Star Tribune political reporter and editor.
By: Joan Anderson Growe, with Lori Sturdevant.
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 224 pages, $19.95.
Coming Sunday: A review of “Snow,” by John Banville.