Mere weeks have passed since the 2014 election, and most state politicians are due for a reprieve from even thinking about campaigns and voting. Gov. Mark Dayton, for example, has four more years in office and no plans to run for a third term. All 201 members of the state House of Representatives and Senate are up for re-election in 2016, but that fact probably won’t trouble most incumbents for another year, when challenger candidates typically begin to emerge.
But, for a handful of state lawmakers, and one newly empowered former legislator, thinking about how Minnesotans campaign, exercise political speech and vote will continue to be a full-time job.
Outgoing Rep. Steve Simons, DFL-Hopkins, relinquished his chairmanship in the House Elections Committee to run for statewide office, and Simon’s election victory will see him succeed DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. That partisan continuity will be noticeably absent in Simon’s former committee, where Republican wins in November mean Rep. Tim Sanders, R-Blaine, will inherit control of state electoral law.
Sanders, who most recently served as GOP lead on that panel, said he has developed a good working relationship with Simon during their six concurrent years in the House. The last two years, their work together has been a requirement, given Dayton’s position mandating bipartisan support for any election law change.
On the Senate side, the Democrats’ chief negotiating partner is Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, a third-term member and assistant majority leader to her party caucus. Sieben, who chairs the Senate Rules and Administration Elections Subcommittee, is generally supportive of moves to make voting easier and increase transparency on campaign advocacy, but has been forced to hold back on some proposals due to a lack of buy-in from the House.
Debate about campaigns and elections next session will be colored by three facts from the just-concluded campaign, each of them historic. First, during the run-up to the election, the state saw yet another record-breaking amount of money spent on influencing voters.
As for voting itself, Minnesota carried out the first implementation of no-excuse absentee voting, which allowed for a huge uptick in ballots cast prior to Election Day; despite that new feature, overall turnout dropped to just 50.5 percent, the lowest level in nearly three decades.
Sanders said his philosophy entering the session is to look for measures that will strengthen both “access and integrity.” Whether it’s the expected rehashing of past battles or the introduction of new innovations, he expects negotiations to be amicable but animated.
“We’ve got to talk through our policy differences,” said Sanders, referring both to Simon and his DFL colleagues in the House. “And we certainly have policy differences.”
At least a few of the issues expected to surface in Sanders’ committee will be leftover debates from prior sessions. Sanders, Simon and House Majority Leader Kurt Daudt have all spoken in favor of moving the statewide primary election from August to June — “that’s something I’ve pushed for years,” Sanders said — and a package to that effect passed in the House during the 2012 session, only to be rejected in a Senate floor vote.
Both Simon and Sieben, meanwhile, are proponents of adoption of early voting, which they have characterized as the logical next step beyond no-excuse absentee voting. Under the absentee system that debuted earlier this year, nearly 200,000 Minnesotans cast ballots by mail or in person, more than 1½ times the absentee participation in the 2010 midterm.
“I’m sure that my caucus will support [early voting],” Sieben said, “though I’m not sure about the House.”
Neither is Sanders. Though the experiment with no-excuse absentee ballots seems to have gone smoothly, he said he is “probably pretty hesitant” to switch to an extended voting period. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Minnesota is one of 13 states that allow a form of in-person absentee voting, which requires voters to apply for an absentee ballot before submitting their choices.
If the idea of early voting surfaces, the League of Women Voters (LOWV) Minnesota will be a vociferous advocate, according to executive director Susan Tucker, who named the subject as one of three top priorities in 2015. The state LOWV chapter is also hoping for serious consideration on restoration of voting rights for felons on parole or probation. Tucker said recent events “in the wider world” might have raised sensitivity to the existence of barriers for convicted felons, especially people of color.
Sanders is open to some discussion of extending the franchise to rehabilitated felons of certain crimes, though he said he would draw a firm line on people convicted of sexual crimes, murder and crimes committed against children.
“I don’t think all felonies are equal,” he said. “Sexual or physical abuse [of a child], or murder — those are things that, in my opinion, you give up the right to have an impact on public policy.”
The third LOWV priority is also one that has backing from the Senate, as well as the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, with each entity stating support for a bill that would increase campaign finance transparency and electioneering regulations. But the bill’s status as a two-time failure has a sobering effect on its boosters.
“I have no illusions that it will get passed this session,” said Tucker, who added that her organization might pursue a more “grass-roots, educational” approach toward rallying public support.
At issue is a proposal that would expand the statutory definition of “electioneering” to include activity which could have “no reasonable interpretation” aside from advocating for or against an individual candidate. Executive Director Gary Goldsmith pointed out that, in light of criticism from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL), the board’s draft legislation excludes communication that an organization sends only to its own members.
The second aspect of the bill would force greater transparency for 501(c)4 nonprofits, commonly called “outside” spending groups, requiring those funds to disclose individual donors who supplied amounts in excess of $5,000 in a given year.
“We don’t know if that entity got its money from two or three donors, or from two or three thousand donors,” Goldsmith observed. “Right now, we know almost nothing about those donors.”
Despite the legislation’s lack of progress to this point, the campaign finance board has again included the idea as part of recommendations approved in November. Sieben, who authored the Senate version of the bill last term, said she would revisit the notion again, and hopes the “influx” of campaign spending last year might help the bill gain traction next year.
Sanders, for his part, said he thinks the bill is too narrowly aimed at business and corporate interest groups, and thinks any such law should also increase regulatory influence on organized labor. He pointed out that Dayton had agreed in statements he made earlier this year, though, Sanders said, the bill would not increase transparency on union outfits in its current form.
“They’ve got some work to do still, if they want to pass that sort of thing,” Sanders said. “There needs to be equal disclosure and equal penalties [for violations].”
Sanders returned to the theme of “work” repeatedly during an interview, saying advocates and, especially, legislators themselves, should be fully aware of the difficulty in crafting a campaign finance or election bill that could receive support from House Republicans, Senate Democrats and Dayton.
“If members are bringing bills to our committee, they need to do the work,” Sanders said. “It’s not supposed to be easy to get your bills passed.”