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Panel crafting plan for Election Day emergencies

An active shooter. A power outage. A massive snowstorm. A chemical or oil spill.

If any of those things happen in Minnesota on Election Day, they could disrupt polling places and prevent people from voting.

That prospect may prompt lawmakers to safeguard the state’s election system by passing new legislation in 2016 — which, after all, is an election year.

Last session, the Legislature created an Elections Emergency Planning Task Force by statute, putting the panel on a five-month mission to come up with recommendations and report back by Jan. 1.

Mary Kiffmeyer

Mary Kiffmeyer

At its second-to-last scheduled meeting Tuesday, the task force began to zero in on how it might advise lawmakers.

Secretary of State Steve Simon, task force chair, said the group is “looking for the sweet spot between command and control in St. Paul versus the Wild, Wild West with no rules whatsoever.”

By voice vote, they opted to pursue an emergency plan that counties could use as a template for creating their own plans.

Making such plans mandatory but flexible would suit counties, said Vice Chair Debby Erickson, Crow Wing County auditor-treasurer, representing the Minnesota Association of County Officers on the task force.

But Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who served as secretary of state from 1999 to 2007, including on 9/11, said she — and, she expected, the Legislature — would prefer that the state give direction to counties in the form of a recommendation, not a mandate. She cast the lone vote against Simon’s motion.

But when the topic is emergencies, even that fairly technical decision — concerning a template plan that Simon admitted some county officials might simply adopt and put on the shelf — raised ominous scenarios.

Barret Lane, who directs emergency management in Minneapolis, said the question of public access under the state data-practices law (perhaps by someone planning a violent attack) to details of counties’ emergency plans would need attention.

Steve Simon

Steve Simon

Simon agreed: “You wouldn’t want someone out there literally having Watonwan County’s plan in their hand about what to do with an active shooter, literally reading it while they’re planning and scheming to wreak havoc.”

How soon any plan that the Legislature approves in the coming session could take effect and see action by all 87 Minnesota county boards was a matter of debate. Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, said the panel might have to consider a plan that would not come into practical effect until the 2018 elections. She noted that even a proposed effective date of Aug. 1, 2016, would be too late for primary elections set for Aug. 9, 2016.

By voice vote, the task force also decided on an approach to providing local officials with new or broader powers for use in coping with Election Day disasters, specifically in these areas:

–Consolidating polling locations.

–Relocating polling places in advance of the election and with greater flexibility regarding location.

–Extending the hours for voting at polling places.

Becker Township Clerk Lucinda Messman, representing the Minnesota Association of Townships, cited two conundrums she faces. The only alternative polling places in her community serve alcohol, which is not allowed under state law. And with railroad tracks running through town, a train derailment and oil spill could require evacuation outside local election boundaries.

But several members expressed wariness about the third point, and the generally held opinion that letting voters cast ballots past 8 p.m. should only be a last resort led to a direction to task force staff to draft restrictive language for the panel to consider at its final meeting in December.

Again there was no shortage of scary scenarios: A SWAT team is called to a polling place for two hours during which no one may vote, or a bomb threat is called in as people are lined up to vote near poll-closing time. Could a local official then tack on time to the voting day?

Again, Kiffmeyer cast the lone no vote, saying that existing laws and recourse to the courts were a better route for dealing with unexpected events that hinder the normal process of elections.

Kiffmeyer’s strongest dissent came when the task force took up the question of statewide emergencies, which Simon said should be declared by officials elected on a similarly statewide basis.

Who should be the decider in matters of electoral catastrophes? The governor, holding the state’s highest office, is an obvious choice. But Simon suggested the decision shouldn’t be left to a single person and proposed instead the state’s executive council, consisting of the governor, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the secretary of state and the state auditor.

Kiffmeyer bristled, pointing out that each of those five statewide elected officials is a member of the DFL Party. Why would Republicans agree to that? She said the executive council, as currently constituted, is far too partisan a body to hand over the power to make critical decisions on Election Day that could mean a swing of critical votes.

Simon responded that the lineup in place on the executive council is an accident of history that’s unlikely to be repeated in the future — or that the council could just as easily be made up of five Republicans someday.

With time running out at the Tuesday meeting, the task force adopted by voice vote a truncated version of a proposed approach to statewide declarations of emergency on Election Day. They designated state officials such as the governor or executive council to declare emergencies but put off discussion of the specifics of such a decision, such as postponing elections; extending absentee-ballot deadlines; offering alternative ways of accepting absentee ballots; expanding Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) procedures; or extending polling place hours.

In an interview after the meeting, Simon said the task force had come to a “rough consensus,” in spite of Kiffmeyer’s objections, that they should recommend that the Legislature “do something” in election law regarding emergencies. He credited Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, with recognizing the need and getting the formation of the task force through the Legislature last session. He said the effort was in keeping with a 2014 National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) report on emergency management of elections.

Kiffmeyer, also interviewed after the meeting, said it was unrealistic to imagine that steps the task force and Legislature might put in place to deal with massively disruptive events wouldn’t get short-circuited by someone taking the problem to court instead.

“People have gone to court over teeny-tiny little things,” Kiffmeyer said. The court system “serves us and it’s quicker.”


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