Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday said he favors conducting Minnesota's elections primarily by mail after a proposal to expand mail-in voting during the pandemic was struck from a $17 million elections package state lawmakers sent to his desk this week.
The legislation the DFL governor signed Tuesday represents a setback for Democrats in Washington and Minnesota who had sought to expand voting by mail during the COVID-19 emergency and into the 2020 elections. But Walz indicated he is looking at other options to make it easier to vote by mail.
"The Governor supports universal mail-in voting, especially during this pandemic and considering a second wave of COVID-19 could hit this fall ahead of the November election," said Teddy Tschann, the governor's press secretary. "He is considering next steps in how to ensure Minnesotans are safely able to exercise their right to vote."
Executive action by the governor likely became the only way that the state's Aug. 11 and Nov. 3 elections could be conducted by mail-in balloting after a proposal championed by DFL lawmakers and Secretary of State Steve Simon was dropped from the bill funding statewide elections.
A DFL proposal to send all registered Minnesota voters ballots by mail quickly became a nonstarter in the Legislature, where Republicans in the GOP-held Senate raised questions about fraud and challenged the integrity of the process. Voters can still request ballots by mail, and state and local elections officials are now urging voters to do so this year.
"A big focus of our office and all elections offices around the state now is to make voters aware of that option ... and encourage voters if they have concerns about polling places to use that option," Simon said.
Roughly a quarter of Minnesota voters cast their ballots by mail in 2018. Simon wants to increase that number to reduce crowding and long lines at polling places.
The $17 million approved by the Legislature comes from two pools of money: federal election security funds allocated as part of the Help America Vote Act, and money made available by Congress through recent COVID-19 aid. Congressional Democrats are also seeking an additional $3.6 billion in election assistance money as part of a fourth coronavirus relief bill unveiled Tuesday.
Minnesota's $17 million deal also required Republicans to give up on key priorities — mainly provisional balloting and voter ID. The result: a compromise package narrowly tailored toward making millions of dollars available to elections officials statewide.
Under the legislation, state and local elections officials have more flexibility to move polling places — more than 40 are in nursing homes or senior care facilities and others in schools — and more time to process absentee ballots.
The package also provides additional funding for postage and paper needed to accommodate an expected uptick in voters participating by mail. Local elections officials also can use the money to hire staff or buy personal protective equipment, plexiglass and sanitizing materials.
"This year is the year that we needed to focus on COVID relief, safe and secure elections in the state of Minnesota," said state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, a Big Lake Republican and former secretary of state who chairs a Senate committee on elections. "We put that as a priority."
Simon and DFL lawmakers say they also are trying to avoid the chaos that marked the Wisconsin presidential primary and Supreme Court election last month. So far, nearly 70 voters are believed to have been infected after spending hours waiting in lines outside polling places. The state's absentee voting system was also marred by widespread crashes and administrative errors.
Walz has stopped short of vowing to mandate mail-in voting on his own, but he would not be the first governor to do so: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a similar order in late March.
In the meantime, Simon said his office is considering mailing absentee ballot applications to all registered voters, a move that would run afoul of GOP lawmakers. Kiffmeyer said the new election legislation does not provide funding for such a mass mailing, adding that state and local officials should instead educate voters on the availability of voting absentee.
Simon said he sees that as a major thrust of his office this year. "I see my job in the next six months or so as ... just promoting this option for those who want to use it and being loud and clear that this law exists," he said. "People who want to take advantage of it should take advantage of it … it is something for their own safety that they might want to do."
Minnesota and other states also are bracing for a possible shortage of poll workers, many of whom may be senior citizens vulnerable to COVID-19. Simon said the state will need about 30,000 workers to staff polls statewide.
Ginny Gelms, Hennepin County election manager, said finding a solution to keep both voters and election workers safe "is really going to hinge on as many people as possible voting by mail voluntarily."
Last week, Kiffmeyer put out a call for younger people to do as she did at the start of her political career and apply to be elections judges. In Hennepin County, the search is on for younger people willing to answer that call.
"The reality is if we don't have people like that signing up, I honestly don't know how we're going to staff Election Day in November," Gelms said.