Irony alert: Election-reform bills proposed this session must pass through legislative panels led by lawmakers who’ve decided they aren’t going to run in the next election.
The chairs of the House committee and Senate subcommittee overseeing proposed changes to Minnesota elections both said last month (before the March 1 precinct caucuses and the March 8 start of session) that they won’t be on the ballot for re-election in November.
Rep. Tim Sanders, R-Blaine, chair of the House Government Operations and Elections Policy Committee, made his announcement in late February, and Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, chair of the Senate Rules and Administration Subcommittee on Elections, announced in early February.
Elections are high on the minds of the American public in presidential election years. And elections, at least eventually, will be on the minds of Minnesotans, who vote for U.S. president and House of Representatives this November, along with electing legislators to all 201 seats in the state Legislature.
But election years aren’t necessarily the best times to introduce legislation on topics related to elections. Indeed, Sanders said he may see fewer election-related bills in election years.
That’s likely true in a historically short session like the current one, when even urgent bills to extend unemployment benefits are delayed and bills in major areas such as transportation face iffy fates.
And election bills face a hurdle that proposals on other topics don’t, Sanders pointed out. It’s the tradition, going back at least to Gov. Jesse Ventura, for governors to insist that elections legislation they sign enjoy broad bipartisan support.
Still, the long lines, overcrowded rooms and traffic jams on Minnesota’s first Super Tuesday caucus night inspired what’s turning out to be Minnesota’s marquee election reform idea of 2016: taking another stab at choosing delegates in presidential contests by primary election rather than at caucuses. (Minnesota hasn’t dabbled in presidential primaries since 1992.)
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, responded quickly to overcrowded caucuses on March 1, announcing his intention to file a presidential primary bill before 10 p.m.
Sanders’ committee heard Sanders’ own bill to switch from caucuses to a presidential primary on an informational basis on Wednesday and is set to take action on it next week. A presidential primary bill sponsored by Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, is on Sieben’s subcommittee’s agenda next week.
The Senate subcommittee has already heard eight election bills this session, including two sponsored by Sieben that arise from recommendations by the Legislature’s Elections Emergency Planning Task Force, a group that met during the interim after being created by a Sieben bill last year.
Other topics of election bills in play: making changes to absentee voting, modifying the timeline for school board special elections, and lowering the voting age to 16.
Sanders identified the school board special elections legislation as among the other top elections bills this session, along with the Secretary of State’s bill (typically containing technical, noncontroversial changes), and moving August primary elections to June. (Garofalo’s presidential primary bill also includes a June primary election provision.)
Sanders said in considering elections-related bills, committee members are on the watch to ensure the provisions are “non-game-able”—as in gaming the electoral system.
“Our job is to read between the lines,” he said. Secretary of State Steve Simon testified with Sanders on his bill Wednesday, and his office said in a response to questions from Capitol Report that he backs efforts to move to a presidential primary system while maintaining caucuses for all other elected offices—as long as the Legislature takes into account the added financial burden for counties and municipalities.
Simon also supports legislative action on elections-emergency planning, pre-registration to vote for 17-year-olds, moving the August primaries to June, and replacing aging election equipment. On Thursday he testified in favor of allowing military and overseas voters to return absentee ballots by fax or email.
On the Legislature’s productivity on elections-related issues, it’s Simon’s view that the length of the session matters more than the closeness to an election.