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DFL lawmakers look to expand voting rights

House and Senate Democrats announced legislation designed to make it easier to vote in Minnesota.

ST PAUL, Minn. — House and Senate DFL leaders picked the anniversary of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol to announce new voting rights initiatives. The effort will be spearheaded by the newly formed group of lawmakers dubbed the "Inclusive Democracy Caucus,"

Their goal is to make it easier for people to vote in Minnesota, protect voters and election workers from intimidation at the polls, and restore voting rights to at least 50,000 Minnesotans who are currently barred from voting because they're on probation for a felony offense.

"Expanding access to vote through automatic voter registration, through pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds and by restoring the vote to those who have served their time," Sen. Lindsey Port, a Burnsville Democrat and co-founder of the new caucus, told reporters at a state capitol press conference Friday.

Legislation known as the "Democracy for the People Act" will travel in House File 3 and Senate File 3, with the high number reflecting how important the legislation is the the DFL majorities in both the House and Senate.

"We all believe our democracy works best when all voices are heard," House Speaker Melissa Hortman explained. "And you will see us moving legislation this session to ensure that more voices are heard at the ballot box and that young people have easy access to the ballot box."

Restoring felon voting rights has made it through the DFL-controlled House in the past but never gained enough traction with the GOP-controlled Senate in the past decade. Now that Democrats control both chambers, they hope this reform and others can become law.

Rep. Esther Agbaje of Minneapolis said the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus is also pressing for this reform.

"We're extremely supportive of expanding the franchise to formerly incarcerated people. They are members of our community, and they deserve to fully participate in society."

The proposed legislation, if it were to become law, would also bring more transparency to campaign finance. It targets what has become known as "dark money" because it's hard to trace the original source through public records.

"That dark money -- nonprofits who are not disclosing at all," Rep. Emma Greenman explained. "Or nonprofits who are disclosing like the Russian nesting dolls. 'Minnesotans for Hot Dish' giving to 'Minnesotans for Loons,' where voters really don't know where it's from." 

Rep. Greenman is a voting rights attorney by trade and one of the co-founders of the new Inclusive Democracy Caucus.  She said the name of the caucus reflects historic, institutionalized barriers to voting in Minnesota and elsewhere.

Making the announcement on the January 6th insurrection anniversary was a deliberate step.

"The disinformation and lies about election systems have only grown. Political violence is increasing. Election workers are facing growing threats," Greenman asserted.

Senate Republicans responded by sharing an excerpt of an interview that Gov. Tim Walz did in 2019, where he agreed that changes to election law should have bipartisan support. In the same clip he said government should make it as easy as possible to vote.

Sen. Mark Koran, a North Branch Republican who is the lead GOP member of the Senate Elections Committee, issued the following statement:

"Minnesota has long-standing practice of only changing election laws on a bipartisan basis, and the fact that my colleagues across the aisle are more interested in passing their hyper-partisan wish lists than they are in finding common ground on our elections is a disservice to all voters."

Republicans in the past have pitched requiring voters to show IDs at the polls, which is the law in many states. Democrats have rejected that idea, arguing that it would disenfranchise voters who stopped driving and no longer have current state-issued licenses. 

Voters who move into new precincts are required to re-establish their identities by re-registering at their new addresses, so the state's voter database can be kept current.  Minnesota voters in 2012 rejected a proposed Voter ID constitutional amendment, but Republicans assert that this issue was clouded because a proposed ban on same sex marriage was also on the ballot that year.

Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, a Minneapolis Democrat, said it's important to act now because of a barrage of attacks on those who run local elections systems.

"We knocked on 500,000 doors during the campaign. We listened to Minnesotans tell us that they were concerned that our democracy remains under attack, both at the state level and at the country level."

Stated objectives of Democracy for People Act, as stated by the caucus:

  • Strengthen voter registration by instituting automatic voter registration and allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote.
  • Restore the right to vote for Minnesotans living in our communities on probation and parole.
  • Strengthen access to the ballot by allowing all voters to choose to vote by mail on a permanent absentee ballot list
  • Prohibit voter intimidation and harassment.
  • Provide Minnesota voters the instructions and support they need to vote, in the language they need it.
  • Close dark money loopholes and increase transparency to unveil who is spending to influence Minnesota elections.
  • Modernize the Political Contribution Refund (PCR) into four $25 Democracy Dollars coupons available to all eligible registered Minnesota voters.
  • Prohibit foreign-influenced corporations from spending money in our elections.

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