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State primary could move to August

Published (2/11/2010)
By Patty Ostberg
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More Minnesotans would have a chance to vote through use of absentee ballots if the state’s traditional September primary date moves to the second Tuesday in August to meet a federal mandate.

Passed in October 2009, the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act requires at least a 45-day period for absentee ballots to be returned and counted for primaries and elections. Previous law was 30 days.

Rep. Steve Simon (DFL-St. Louis Park) sponsors HF2552 that would conform Minnesota’s elections to the federal mandate. “It’s been said that in every recount in Minnesota there are basically two stacks of discarded ballots: one is the people who just did it wrong, and one are the overseas people who didn’t get their ballots back in time … This is finally the fix that we need,” he said.

Approved by the House State and Local Government Operations Reform, Technology and Elections Committee Feb. 9, the bill awaits action on the House floor. A Senate companion, SF2251, sponsored by Sen. Terri Bonoff (DFL-Minnetonka), awaits action by the full Senate.

In 2008, almost 400,000 military and overseas absentee voters failed to have their ballots counted, said Bob Carey, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program. “That’s because there is just not enough time,” he said. Those voters “experience much more difficulty than the average voter in exercising their right to vote.”

Bloomington City Clerk Thomas Ferber said, “It breaks our hearts when we get absentee ballots coming in after an election, particularly if it’s from the military and overseas voters who have made the effort to get the ballot there, but because of timing the ballot arrives after Election Day.”

The bill was successfully amended by Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer (R-Big Lake) to remove administrative election changes she considered unnecessary for federal conformity. In general, the former secretary of state supports the primary date change, but asked, “Why is it necessary to make these changes in this particular bill … one of the focuses is conformity to the federal law, not turning it into a great big administration bill that we kind of throw extras in.”

Simon responded that the bill should be tailored as narrow as possible, “but there’s some dates, date changes and other things that seem to follow naturally. Are they compelled by federal law? No.” For example, he noted that under current law campaign lawn signs can be put up beginning Aug. 1. The bill would change that to 46 days before the state primary, or before the Fourth of July.

Beth Fraser, director of governmental affairs for the Office of the Secretary of State, said while some of the portions of the bill are not directly related to the federal mandate, the changes included make the bill “workable.”

Simon emphasized the need to pass the legislation quickly so local election officials have time to implement the changes for the 2010 election cycle. Upon passage, changes would happen as soon as March.

The month of June was also considered for the primary, but Greater Minnesota legislators said it wouldn’t give them enough time to face potential challengers, said Simon. Being that the legislative session typically lasts until the third week in May, current legislators said it wouldn’t give them enough time to return to their districts and campaign.

Simon said the success of an August primary will fall on local cities and election officials letting people know of the change because August is typically when Minnesotans head to their cabins or vacation away.

Only Hawaii currently has a later primary date than Minnesota. Ten states and the District of Columbia will also have to change primary dates to meet the new law.

Citing not enough bipartisan support, Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed a similar measure last year that was included in a larger elections package. He has indicated that he supports the date change; however, he would like to see a clean bill on the proposal.

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