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Bill proposing automatic voter registration, permanent absentee ballot lists gains House approval

Rep. Emma Greenman introduces HF3 on the House Floor April 13. (Photo by Catherine Davis)
Rep. Emma Greenman introduces HF3 on the House Floor April 13. (Photo by Catherine Davis)

— UPDATED at 9:29 p.m. after vote

A vast elections bill that supporters say focuses on Minnesota voices is not being well-received by all — but enough — of them.

Proponents say the so-called “Democracy for the People Act” would help strengthen voter participation, expand access, and continue sound elections administration.

“We’re going to be a North Star for states around the country, for people around the country who are asking in this moment, ‘What does American democracy look like?’,” Rep. Emma Greenman (DFL-Mpls), the sponsor of HF3, said at a morning press conference.

Passed, as amended, 70-57 by the House late Thursday, the bill now heads to the Senate.

Also at the press conference, House Majority Leader Jamie Long (DFL-Mpls) said everything in the bill is about expanding access. “Minnesotans value our democracy, they love to vote, they vote in some of the highest numbers in our country, but we can always be better. … This bill has so many commonsense, important provisions in it.”

Bill provisions include:

  • automatic voter registration when getting a driver’s license or state identification card (channels would still be followed to ensure eligibility);
  • pre-registration to vote for 16- and 17-year-olds;
  • voters could join a permanent absentee voter list for automatic delivery of an absentee ballot;
  • establishing standards and procedures for multi-lingual election resources, including translation services at a polling place;
  • protecting voters from intimidation, harassment, and deceptive practices;
  • updating disclosure laws so Minnesotans better understand who is trying to influence their vote; and
  • restricting certain political activities by foreign-influenced corporations, such as making contributions to a candidate or their principal campaign; to a political committee, fund, or party unit; or to promote or defeat a ballot question.

“By enhancing access to voting, whether through ease of registration, language access, or protecting voters from intimidation, this bill makes it clear we want Minnesota to be a state where people vote,” said Rep. Esther Agbaje (DFL-Mpls).

But Rep. Kristin Robbins (R-Maple Grove) has capability concerns as more information is added. A 2018 Office of the Legislative Auditor report found plenty of problems in the current statewide voter registration system, and she said a 2019 report showed not much had been fixed. “Automatic voter system may be a good idea at some point, but it is not prudent to do this when the current system is not functioning well. We are opening ourselves up to a host of problems about ineligible voters voting or not being able to be verified.”

Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Hanska) expressed dismay that past practice has been for elections bills to be bipartisan — something Gov. Tim Walz endorsed in 2019 — and this one is far from that.

Countered Long: “Everything that is in here does not favor one party or the other. It’s about expanding access to vote, making it easier for people to participate, and the public does not view these as partisan.”

House/Senate DFL Press Conference 4/13/23

Funding elections

At a February hearing of the House Elections Finance and Policy Committee, Jeff Sigurdson, executive director of the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, said $53 million was spent in Minnesota for the 2022 election, a rather “explosive growth” over prior years. That does not include groups not registered with the board.

A problem, Greenman said, is spending from outside groups and other independent expenditures do not always need to be reported to the board, leading voters and candidates not knowing who’s funding, for example, a negative ad.

The bill would expand the statutory definition of “expressly advocating” to include types of political communication that do not use specific words or phrases that clearly express advocacy, such as “vote” or “vote against,” but “could only be interpreted by a reasonable person as containing advocacy of the election or defeat of one or more clearly identified candidates.”

“This bill says if it is express advocacy, if it is a functional equivalent, which is no reasonable person could interpret it as anything else, those are required to report as an independent expenditure and report their express advocacy,” Greenman said.

Debate on HF3, voting registrations provisions - part 1 of 2 4/13/23

Rep. Harry Niska (R-Ramsey) said the bill should be called the “Democrats Rule the People Act.”

He believes parts will be subject to a constitutional challenge, the express advocacy changes will “chill potential speech,” and language to prohibit companies with foreign ties from certain political activities would not apply to unions and nonprofit groups.

An amendment offered by Torkelson to limit when express advocacy would be enforced was unsuccessful, as was one to delete the “express advocacy” definition and replace it with “electioneering communications.”

Other amendments unsuccessfully offered by Republicans include: a person registering to vote on Election Day would cast a provisional ballot, and once verified as an eligible voter, the ballot would be counted; prohibiting someone convicted of a felony from pre-registering to vote; a ban on elections money from outside Minnesota; and ensuring most individual information in the statewide voter registration system is public information. Data that’d remain private include a voter’s date of birth, driver’s license or identification card number, passport number, and any part of a Social Security number.

Debate on HF3, voting registrations provisions - part 2 of 2 4/13/23

Money, money, money

The bill contains $1.06 million of General Fund spending in 2024-25 for bill implementation, including $861,000 to the Office of the Secretary of State — largely a onetime expense related to programming costs for implementing automatic voter registration and updating online tools — and $200,000 to the Office of the Attorney General for enforcement of intimidation and interference with the voting process.

[MORE: View the consolidated fiscal note]

From the vehicle services operating account, a onetime $45,000 appropriation would go to the Public Safety Department for updated formats and language associated with paper application forms and online pre-applications because of automatic voter provisions.

Representatives of the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board previously said the proposed changes can be absorbed in their current funding.


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