Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature want to dramatically limit the number of people who can vote by mail and require a photo ID at the polls, as they join conservative lawmakers across the nation in a tidal wave of proposals to tighten access to the democratic process.
In Minnesota, and in states like Georgia and Arizona that were key to delivering the White House and Congress to Democrats last year, Republicans argue the new policies would instill confidence in the U.S. voting system following the 2020 election, which saw former President Donald Trump promote baseless allegations of widespread fraud.
With a Democratic governor and state House majority, all major election law changes are unlikely in Minnesota this year. But Republicans who lead the state Senate have sprung off concern among conservatives over Trump's claims to renew their own long-standing push for stricter voting rules.
"It's been quite visible in terms of some of those concerns. The answer to that is transparency," said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, a former secretary of state who is planning a public hearing on questions related to the 2020 election. "When folks ask these questions we should try to get them answered."
Courts from coast to coast, state and federal election officials and the nation's law enforcement and intelligence communities gave last year's vote the stamp of approval as one of the most secure elections in the nation's history.
Democrats see the push as retribution for last year's historic voter turnout, and believe that the changes sought by Republicans are attempts to disenfranchise young people and voters of color.
"At the national level, I am very worried about it. You are going to see a lot of litigation that results over it," said Marc Elias, a national election lawyer who's represented Minnesota Democrats in a number of cases, including the 2008 Senate recount. "In Minnesota, I think you have a Republican Party that can't enact these provisions, so it is simply doing it to show fealty to a one-term president in hopes that it buys goodwill with his base."
Some of what is being proposed in the state Senate has a familiar ring. In 2012, Republicans controlled both legislative chambers and put a constitutional amendment to require a photo ID at the polls up for a statewide vote. It failed.
Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, revived the measure this year as a change in state law instead. Minnesotans might have a different view of photo ID after court cases affirmed similar policies in other states, he argued. And he said his constituents lack confidence in the voting system.
"I think that voter fraud is a matter of historical fact and it does, in fact, happen," Newman said. "It's the extent to which it happens that I don't know and frankly neither do you, and neither does anyone else. The voter ID bill is simply one tool to detect and deter voter fraud in the future."
A hearing on the photo ID bill in January turned ugly. GOP senators grilled Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat, on whether any fraud exists in state elections. They told him he could only answer yes or no.
Voter fraud occurs at a "minuscule" level in Minnesota, Simon said in an interview. Barely more than a dozen cases are investigated annually in a state with more than 3 million registered voters, he said.
Simon believes Minnesota's nation-leading turnout rate — nearly 80% in 2020 — is proof of voters' confidence in the system. Examples of rampant fraud cited by lawmakers are grounded more in baseless theories than fact, he said.
"I think that the disinformation that has come out of the 2020 election contest has too often been the wind beneath the wings of some of these proposals," Simon said. "They have breathed new life into what had been, for a long time, dormant bills."
But, for the first time, Republicans are also taking aim at the state's no-excuse absentee balloting system, which allows all eligible voters to vote by mail up to 46 days before the election.
Last fall, a record 58% of Minnesota voters cast an absentee ballot, up from 24% in 2018. They flocked to voting by mail as a safer alternative to long lines at the polls during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Simon expects at least a third of all voters will continue casting their ballots that way.
Several GOP proposals would go back to Minnesota's old system, with absentee balloting allowed only in an emergency or for those who have a permitted reason for not being able to vote in person.
A proposal from Kiffmeyer would allow in-person absentee voting only at a county auditor's office or a precinct polling location, which must accept the ballots during regular business hours. Opponents say the bill would limit the number of locations to vote early in person, but Kiffmeyer said she has concerns about the security of the system.
"A polling place is designed to handle that. It is still the very best way of conducting an election," Kiffmeyer said. "One of the things I've come to realize is the simple value of casting your ballot in the most secure way. It isn't always putting it in an envelope and dropping it off."
Kiffmeyer was one of 15 GOP state lawmakers who publicly urged the attorney general of Texas to include Minnesota in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to invalidate the presidential results in a half dozen swing states.
Similar bills are popping up all over the country. The Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive legal institute at New York University, tallied more than 250 bills seeking to tighten voting rules in a total of 43 states, a surge of more than four times the rate of similar legislative proposals at this point last year.
Last month, the Republican National Committee established a Committee on Election Integrity to examine states' election laws.
Democrats are countering with a push to make voting easier. Last week, the U.S. House passed a sweeping elections package that expands early voting, requires automatic registration of eligible voters and extends same-day registration nationwide.
Backers say it will inoculate the country against potential voting rights setbacks passed by the states. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is sponsoring the legislation in the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future in the evenly divided chamber.
In St. Paul, Democrats want to prohibit voter intimidation and restore voting rights for felons who have completed prison sentences. They're pushing to make permanent last year's elimination of a witness requirement in most cases for absentee voting. Simon also wants to authorize election workers to count absentee ballots two weeks before Election Day, rather than the one week now in state law.
Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis, a new House member and voting rights attorney who is sponsoring several election bills this year, said she's somewhat surprised by the Republican efforts in the Senate, especially after the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
"These lies and this disinformation have been used to push this agenda," she said. "The way to instill people's confidence in our elections is to respect voters and tell the truth, that this was a safe and secure election."
Given the Republican Senate majority, major election-law proposals from Democrats are also unlikely to go anywhere this session. But the issue seems certain to be fodder for the 2022 campaign.
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042