New laws making it easier to vote take effect in Minnesota in time for the August 13 primary and November 5 general elections. Measures enacted by the 2013 Minnesota Legislature take effect this year and in 2014, and will be welcomed by many Minnesotans with disabilities.
The most anticipated change starts with the 2014 state primary election when No Excuses Absentee Voting begins. Many Minnesotans with disabilities and senior citizens use absentee voting as a means to cast ballots without waiting in long lines or arranging transportation.
Currently voters have to have an excuse to vote absentee, such as illness or absence from the precinct on Election Day. The No Excuse Absentee Balloting measure recently signed into law will allow Minnesota voters to cast absentee ballots without having to provide an excuse. Minnesota will join 28 other states in offering no excuse absentee voting. The new law allows the voter to claim permanent absentee voter status, which would result in an absentee ballot mailed to the voter before each election.
Other changes are now in effect. Voters who live in townships outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area will be able to use Expanded Mail Balloting. Registered voters in these rural areas will be able to get their ballots directly in the mail and mail them back for counting. That will help people with disabilities and senior citizens in areas where otherwise individuals might have difficulty getting to the polling place.
Another change that will be in six selected communities is a task force to monitor electronic roster book pilot project. The selected communities are Dilworth, Minnetonka, Moorhead, St. Anthony and St. Paul.
The task force will examine the use of electronic poll books for use on Election Day. That will save time with data entry and will in turn save voters time at the polls.
The pilot locations will use electronic rosters to process Election Day-registration, to verify the registration status of preregistered voters, or both. The Office of the Secretary of State, in conjunction with the task force will evaluate the pilot project and report to the chairs and ranking minority members of the Elections Committees in the Minnesota Legislature by Jan. 31, 2014.
One change that had drawn concerns during the last session won’t affect people with disabilities as advocates for people with disabilities and those who work with residential facilities had feared. This change limits the number of people an individual can vouch for at the polls. The law had allowed individuals to vouch for up to 15 people during an election. Candidates often use vouching as a way to get supporters registered at the polls. The change lowers the number to eight.
One worry had been that community residential facilities would be hampered in helping residents register to vote. But the new law specifically exempts facilities, said Sara Grafstrom. She is director of advocacy and community relations for ARRM, the statewide organization that supports and works with residential facilities and individuals.
“The key is that residential facilities have to decide which employee or employees will vouch for residents at the polls,” Grafstrom said. Those employees would be identified to local election officials no later than 20 days prior the election. Those employees can still bring proper ID to the polls and vouch for residents. Grafstrom and other disability community advocates like the law changes. “Any time you make voting easier, it’s good,” she said.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie praised the measures enacted by lawmakers this spring. “These laws further modernize our elections by make voting more convenient for eligible voters, and reducing costs and workload for election officials,” said Ritchie. “I thank our legislators and their bipartisan support. More work remains, however, to ensure Minnesotans have access to the ballot box and that our elections are run as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.”
“These are smart laws already in effect in many other states. These are common-sense and modest reforms that bring Minnesota closer to a system that is in alignment with our neighboring states and even closer to meeting the needs of 21st century voters while remaining cost-effective and efficient. These are smart laws already in effect in many other states.” One disappointment is that legislators didn’t act on any proposals early to create an early voting system.
Both House and Senate bills initially did contain provisions for early voting, so that voters could cast ballots up to 15 days before an election. Election officials from around the state and various advocacy groups support early voting; noting it is simpler and less expensive than absentee voting. This proposal ran into opposition from members of both major parties. Gov. Mark Dayton indicated he wouldn’t support changes that didn’t have broad bi-partisan support so that initiative was dropped.