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Hennepin County District Court Judge Jay Quam stopped at mile 17 of the Boston Marathon to take a photo with his daughter. (Submitted photo)

House-Senate panel recommends election-emergency legislation

Emergencies on Election Day could prompt local and state officials to exercise new authority to change polling place locations and extend hours for voting — if the Legislature adopts proposals in a report and draft legislation approved this month by a joint House-Senate panel.

An example of such a disruption, mentioned as an example by Becker Township Clerk Lucinda Messman, who represents the Minnesota Association of Townships, might be a bomb threat at a polling place.

Other types of potential emergencies that could justify local or state emergency actions, as mentioned by task force members at their November meeting, include active shooters, power outages, massive snowstorms and chemical or oil spills.

But the inspiration for the preparedness effort was something that’s unlikely to disrupt a Minnesota election any time soon.

“Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was a great lesson,” said Secretary of State Steve Simon, who chaired the task force. Effects of that storm, which battered the East Coast in October 2012, lasted through the federal general election.

The panel approved draft legislation that would allow local election officials to combine polling places from separate precincts in the event of an emergency. The change would not require approval by a local governing body.

The task force also approved a recommendation that lawmakers authorize state officials, including the governor and at least one other person, to declare a statewide emergency affecting an election day. A new law should include (but not necessarily be limited to) these five responses, the panel said:

  • Postponement of Election Day.
  • Extension of absentee ballot deadlines.
  • Alternative methods for absentee ballot acceptance.
  • Expansion of Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) voting procedures.
  • A statewide increase in polling place hours.

There’s no guarantee that the Legislature — which created the short-lived task force by statute and tasked it to complete a report in five months — will adopt or even consider the panel’s recommendations.

“We hope they take our report seriously,” Simon said.

At the task force’s November meeting, Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who served as secretary of state from 1999 to 2007, consistently voted against motions made and was vocal in her objections to the task force’s approach and specific ideas such as making the state’s executive council — the governor, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the secretary of state and the state auditor — the deciding body for statewide emergencies. (She pointed out those officials are currently all DFLers.) But at the December meeting, the panel’s last, Kiffmeyer limited herself to voting no.

As he had at the November meeting, Simon praised task force member Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport. “She’s the one — not me, not anyone else as far as I know — who really fully flagged this issue, based on some work that had been going on nationally, and the need to re-examine what’s on the books in Minnesota to see whether we, as like most other states, need to revisit those laws. And it turns out, we do.”

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