A Minnesota program that protects the addresses of victims of intimate partner violence and others with high safety needs has become the latest target in the Republican drumbeat over voter fraud, stalling a proposal at the Capitol that proponents say is needed to ensure the safety of participants.

Changes related to the Safe at Home program, which also includes some judges, prosecutors and law enforcement members who might fear retribution, have typically received bipartisan support, including from some Republican legislators who are now calling for a pause on the legislation.

"[This] is bringing the big lie to a whole other level," said Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, whose bill to make changes to the program was held up in a Senate committee this week by Republican objections. "It just was uncalled for, to be blunt, but also unfortunate because this is going to protect victims of domestic abuse."

The program, first established in Minnesota in 2007, helps participants maintain a confidential address and assigns them a private P.O. box that they can use as their legal address. The program acts as a mail forwarding service to a participant's private home address and is managed through the Secretary of State's office.

But Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, raised concerns during a committee hearing this week that participants' voter registration is private.

"I've sat in on court arguments of the Secretary of State's office trying to keep general voter data so-called private and out of the hands of other groups trying to offer scrutiny and making sure the voter rolls are accurate," Westrom said. "While the intention of making stuff private is laudable in a narrow, limited way, it seems to be that the concerns I have is maybe the Secretary of State's office is trying to use the statute to hide behind in other cases."

Westrom, who did not respond to a request for comment, offered no specific voter fraud claims against participants in the group but wondered if a third party should be able to authenticate voter data to verify the program is not "a harbor for other voters that nobody would ever know about."

The three-term state senator attended a December presentation by a group called Midwest Swamp Watch, led by Rick Weible, a former small-town mayor who has traveled the state laying out voter fraud claims. In the past, Weible mentioned the Safe at Home program as one of several ways he couldn't connect ballots to registered voters on the public list.

Participants in the program vote absentee, and their registration and address are not listed in Minnesota's public database of voters, which anyone can request for a fee. State residents can ask to keep their addresses off the public voter file.

Weible says after getting more information about the fewer than 800 people who voted in the program in the last election — and the rigorous requirements to enter Safe at Home — he now believes that it's "nearly impossible for voter fraud to occur" in the program.

"There are so many checks and balances to make sure everything is on the up and up on the program," he said, adding that it's possible Westrom "misinterpreted" his questions about Safe at Home.

Weible said the program must be preserved to protect victims of violence and threats, though he suggested the state could release data to indicate at the precinct level when a vote is cast by someone in the program, without identifying anyone.

"These are people that have been through horrific situations where we've identified that their lives at are stake or potentially even their kids and we must protect these people," he added.

Minnesota's program currently serves nearly 4,000 participants, and 37 other states have similar programs to protect survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. Increasingly, members of law enforcement have signed on to protect their private addresses.

The legislation, which Bigham was expecting to head to a Senate floor vote, is now stalled in the Senate Civil Law and Data Practices Policy Committee. The proposal unanimously cleared House committees last year and advocates say the changes have been in the works since 2018.

Dianna Umidon, who has served as director of the Safe at Home program since it started in Minnesota, said the legislation clarifies that landlords cannot post the name and apartment number of a program participant in the building. It also makes sure participants have access to social services while protecting their privacy.

"It does a really good job of balancing the need to ensure that participation information is safe and they are empowered to choose what information is shared, and making the job of government run efficiently and effectively," she said.

The organization Violence Free Minnesota includes more than 90 member programs statewide that advocate for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, many of which help people enroll in the Safe at Home program, Policy Director Katie Kramer said.

"When fleeing an abuser and seeking safety, the Safe at Home program provides huge relief for survivors of violence, and we really believe that the Safe at Home program is needed to protect the constitutional right to vote and to protect the safety of victim-survivors who are fleeing abusive situations," she said.

Voter fraud through Safe at Home has "never come to our attention," Kramer said.

"And honestly, with all the steps that you need to take to participate in the program, it would seem highly unlikely that that would take place."