Minnesota elections chief seeks to make voting even easier

Published 8:42 am Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

ST. PAUL — Minnesota’s chief elections officer called on state lawmakers Monday to make it easier for residents to vote while protecting elections officials from threats and intimidation.

Key elements of Secretary of State Steve Simon’s agenda are included in an elections package that fellow Democrats in the state House and Senate introduced last week. Others will be covered in separate legislation.

As legislatures convene across the country, lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle are bracing for new fights on election-related legislation amid the continued false claims by former President Donald Trump and his allies that the 2020 election was stolen. Republicans are eager to tighten election rules further, whereas Democrats are seeking to make it easier to vote.

Email newsletter signup

Simon — who won more votes than any other candidate on Minnesota’s statewide ballot as he fought off a GOP challenger who claimed the 2020 election was rigged — said Minnesota consistently has one of the highest turnouts in the country by promoting voter access while balancing it with security measures that keep fraud at “microscopic” levels.

“Minnesotans agree: Democracy was on the ballot in 2022,” Simon said at a news conference. “The voters of Minnesota had a chance to make their voices heard on elections and voting issues. They spoke loudly and clearly.”

Democrats are moving quickly to take advantage of their new majorities in both chambers of the Minnesota Legislature to pass priorities that Republicans blocked when they controlled the state Senate.

Simon’s priorities include restoring the voting rights of felons when they get out of prison, automatic voter registration when people obtain or renew driver’s licenses, and allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister so they can vote as soon as they turn 18. Measures that would restore voting rights and allow preregistration are set to get their first House hearings Wednesday.

Simon’s other priorities include adding criminal and civil penalties for threatening or intimidating election workers; removing an unusual requirement that lawmakers approve the use of federal election security money, which Republicans used previously as leverage over Simon; and fuller reimbursements to local governments for the costs of administering presidential primaries.

Some Republican-led states are heading in the opposite direction. In Ohio, for example, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine signed a sweeping package Friday that includes his state’s first photo ID requirement and a prohibition on curbside voting, except for those with disabilities.

Elizer Darris, co-executive director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a nonprofit that helps people post bail, said he’s helped to get “thousands upon thousands” of voters to the polls, and he’s run election campaigns. He said he’s law-abiding and pays “lots of taxes.” He’s been out of prison for almost seven years, after serving time for killing a man when he was a juvenile. But despite turning his life around, he still can’t vote.

“We’re calling upon the Legislature, and the governor, to pass the bill and to sign the bill and to open up democracy for all of us, so that we can all be part of this wonderful democratic experience, fully and wholly,” Darris told reporters.

Darris said more than 50,000 convicted felons in Minnesota would regain the right to vote if the legislation passes, and he hopes that other states will follow. Simon added that 21 states and the District of Columbia have already done restored voting rights for felons.

Katie Taffe, a senior at Hermantown High School, proudly held up the confirmation card that she received in the mail shortly after she registered online on her 18th birthday last month. “By allowing teens to preregister to vote, we have the opportunity to get more eligible Minnesotans involved in democracy while they are still in school,” she said.

Out-of-power Senate Republicans are already feeling left out.

“Minnesota has long-standing practice of only changing election laws on a bipartisan basis, and the fact that my colleagues across the aisle are more interested in passing their hyper-partisan wish lists than they are in finding common ground on our elections is a disservice to all voters,” state Sen.

Mark Koran, of North Branch, said in a statement Friday.

Simon, disputed that, calling his proposals “nonpartisan in origin and in effect,” saying many have already been adopted by Republican lawmakers in GOP-led as well as Democratic-led states.

“I will work with anyone of any political affiliation, from any background, from any part of our state, to protect and strengthen and defend the freedom to vote in Minnesota,” Simon said.

Simon has the enthusiastic support of Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, who was reelected with more than 33,000 fewer votes than Simon. He said Simon’s wish list mirrors his own.

“People spoke very strongly,” Walz said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think it shows you that both Steve is an incredible guy and he has great support in Minnesota, but it also shows you how important that issue of voter security is to people, and election security.”