Despite a lot of hard work at the legislature this year, this session saw no action on election issues. Election bills traveled through committees relatively easily and passed both houses without much disagreement, but as the weather warmed up it seemed feelings toward the election bills cooled off. The vetoes didn’t help, of course. The bills covered an array of topics, from clarifying how far someone can stand from the building of a polling place to automatic voter registration. Yet due to disagreements and stalling on the House floor, none of these provisions got heard or voted on before session deadline, and so will have to wait for future sessions.
Among the rejected reforms were two that would have expanded voting access for people with disabilities. The first bill would have helped voters who are unable to get to the polling place. It proposed to expand the “agent delivery process” to include individuals who are disabled or otherwise have health issues that prevent them from going to their polling place on Election Day. Under agent delivery, a person can appoint an “agent” to pick up and deliver their ballot on, or four days before, Election Day. The second bill would have made it easier for people living in group homes to vote. Group home voters can use a group home employee to vouch for them at the polling place. Currently, the group home needs to submit a list of employees in advance to the county auditor. The bill would have eliminated the need to submit such a list.
The most controversial issue this session centered on townships’ exemption from having to use accessible voting machines. As you may recall, this issue has been a hot one for the last three sessions. Under state and federal law, polling places must provide accessible voting machines. However, Minnesota townships have sought a legislative exemption due to the financial hardship that purchasing the AutoMark would pose to them. All stakeholders involved in the township issue worked closely with the Office of the Secretary of State to continue discussions in the hopes of finally coming to a compromise. Unfortunately, there was none.
Here’s where the township issue stands now. No agreement was reached this year, with one exception. To allow more time for discussion, the deadline for townships to get voting machines was extended from 2008 to 2010. A task force will continue discussions over the summer.
Efforts were made to secure at least some of these accessible voting reforms, but ultimately failed. First, the various provisions were passed by both houses and rolled into the State Government Finance Omnibus Bill. Then, as committee deadlines approached, rumors of vetoes flew around the capitol. The rumors then turned to regular conversations and eventually became bitter arguments in committee hearings and floor debates. The township provision and a few other key election items in the bill were not strong enough to fight off the pen of the governor. This bill was vetoed on May 7th. The governor had specific objections with the election provisions in the bill and described them line by line in his veto message.
After doing a strategy check, legislators prepped the bill for a second appearance before the governor. At the final hour, when things couldn’t get any crazier at the legislature, members of the House were debating the Tax Omnibus bill. All election provisions within the State Government Finance omnibus bill had been stripped with the hopes that they would be put into their own omnibus bill. Unfortunately, time ran out and no action was taken.
The inaction of the legislature on election legislation is disappointing not only for the disability community, but also for many other affected parties, including the townships, county and city elections, and the Office of the Secretary of State. Not to mention every eligible voter in Minnesota.
One of the main objectives of voting reform proponents between now and the next session will be to educate the governor and key members of the legislature about these voting barriers and why the right action is needed to provide access to voting for people with disabilities.