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Democrats eye election and campaign law changes in 2013

Briana Bierschbach//November 29, 2012

Democrats eye election and campaign law changes in 2013

Briana Bierschbach//November 29, 2012

Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Election season may be over, but campaigns will likely be on the agenda when the new DFL-controlled Legislature convenes in January.

DFL Rep. Steve Simon, the incoming chairman of the House Elections Committee, says the panel will take up a number of changes to campaign laws on the heels of a major election year. Already he’s heard a desire from members from both parties to put more teeth in campaign finance reporting requirements after outside money poured into the state to influence a handful of key legislative races this fall.

On the Republican side, incoming freshman Rep. Jeff Howe of St. Cloud has said he wants to rein in outside spending after his brother, GOP Sen. John Howe of Red Wing, was defeated in an expensive race targeted by independent spending groups.  DFL Sen. Jim Carlson says he would like to see more disclosure requirements in campaign finance laws. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent in his successful Eagan Senate bid against freshman Republican Ted Daley, but many of those expenditures went unreported, he said. That’s because they came from nonprofit issue advocacy groups that are not currently required to file reports with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.

“I have clipboards in my home filled with literature attacking me,” Carlson said. “It’s really quite remarkable.”

Another wrinkle from the campaign that Democrats and others would like to see fixed is a decades-old election law that does not allow candidates outside of constitutional offices to withdraw from the ballot after a two-day window in June.

The law was put in the spotlight this summer after Duluth DFL Rep. Kerry Gauthier made headlines for having oral sex with a 17-year-old male in a public rest stop. Gauthier ultimately withdrew from the race, but Democrats had to go all the way to the state Supreme Court to get his name pulled from the ballot. The provision also complicated a Rochester City Council race this year; the incumbent council member died but could not be removed from the ballot. The deceased candidate won that race, triggering a special election. Simon says he has received calls from Republicans and Democrats on the law, and that now is the time to talk about making some official changes in the law books.

“We’ve been grappling with this law since at least Sen. [Paul] Wellstone’s death,” he said. “We need a better way to deal with these unforeseen events.”

With Democrats now in control of both chambers and the governor’s office, campaign watchers can expect to see some longtime DFL election overhauls come up for a hearing. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie this week said he would like to expand the window for early voting in the state after a record number of ballots – about 30,000 more than in 2008 – were cast this year. Ritchie, a DFLer, has also pushed for electronic pollbook technology, and there has been bipartisan talk of moving the primary from August to an earlier date in June. Simon says the committee will likely take a look at all of those changes.

He adds he wants to wait to see the full make up of his committee, especially the Republican members, before charging ahead on any legislation. “Others have rightly emphasized that election laws should be as bipartisan as possible,” he said. “And this is not the time for one side or another to be ramming through an agenda.”

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