Minnesota lawmakers on Thursday weighed an incremental shift toward early voting amid signs they will have a harder time enacting a broader expansion that would open polling places weeks before Election Day.
Legislation to dump a requirement that people have a valid excuse to vote by absentee ballot got a favorable reception in its first airing before the House Elections Committee. No vote was taken, but no objections were voiced either.
Rep. Steve Simon, the committee's chairman and the bill's sponsor, said allowing no-excuse absentee voting would ease voting and legitimize an exercise that is taking place already. Minnesota now requires people to attest to one of a handful of justifications spelled out in law to obtain an absentee ballot, but enforcement is lax.
"We shouldn't make lawbreakers out of the folks who for reasons of convenience or otherwise choose to vote absentee," said Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park. "As long as we have integrity protections in place, I think it's important that we make voting reasonably convenient for increasingly busy people."
Simon acknowledged that full-fledged early voting faces "a steeper climb" in the Legislature given Gov. Mark Dayton's demand that election law changes have broad bipartisan support. Some lawmakers are resistant to the idea of setting up voting machines weeks in advance.
Thirty-two states, including all of Minnesota's neighbors, offer some form of early voting where people don't have to have an excuse for casting a ballot early. In most cases, ballots are fed straight into a counting machine, although the actual votes are not tabulated until polls close.
Kent Kaiser, a Republican who worked under two secretaries of state, testified in favor of Simon's absentee voting bill but said he doesn't feel the same way about the other form of early voting. Under Minnesota's current absentee system, a voter can substitute his or her absentee ballot in the days before Election Day; a system in which ballots are fed instantly into a machine wouldn't allow for reconsideration.
"People get more information as they get closer to Election Day and they change their mind," said Kaiser, who also made reference to the 2002 election where then-Sen. Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash two weeks out.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said lawmakers need to be mindful of costs on local governments that administer elections. He said Minnesota's nation-leading turnout is proof that people are finding ways to vote.
"We want to make sure that first of all, there is a problem and a need, and then figure out what the solution is going to be," he said.
Ramsey County election manager Joe Mansky said a robust system of early voting could actually save money. He said it cost his agency $7.28 to process each absentee ballot in the last election because of additional verification steps. One third of those absentee voters showed up to an election's office in person. He estimated that it would cost $3.80 per ballot if the votes were instantly fed into counting machines.
Page 2 of 2 - The absentee ballot bill was set aside for a vote later in the coming weeks. The Democratic-controlled Senate has yet to take action on any election bills.