ST PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota's top election authority is asking state lawmakers to expand voter registration in the state through several initiatives, all aimed at making it easier for more people to vote here.
Monday Minnesota's Secretary of State, Steve Simon, pitched a variety of changes that could never gain traction with Republicans when they controlled the Senate during his first eight years in office. Now that his fellow Democrats have single-party control of the state capitol, Simon is confident his proposals can become law.
The first item on his wish list is automatic voter registration when people get driver's licenses. They would have the opportunity to opt-out, but he predicted it would draw people into the process who currently don't believe they have time to register.
"It saves money. It will increase access to the polls, allowing us to add or update up to 450,00 additional registrations per year," Simon explained.
The second idea he's promoting is allowing anyone who's not currently incarcerated to vote. Currently, people can't vote until they've finished probation, which can last decades. Proponents say restoring the vote to felony offenders would affect roughly 50,000 Minnesotans.
Elizer Darris, who heads the Minnesota Freedom Fund, said he's been out of prison for seven years and still isn't eligible to vote yet. He has been active as a political organizer and campaign manager but is still barred from casting a ballot.
"Every single year, while I’m helping to drive turnout for thousands to the polls, I’m not able to hold up that little red sticker," Darris said, pointing out that he pays taxes and abides by the law but is left out of the democratic process.
Simon, as the top elections officer in the state, is a defendant in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU seeking to have the state's current ban on felon voters declared unconstitutional. That case is still pending in the appellate system.
Republicans have opposed this change in the past, arguing that probation is part of the sentence for a felony and losing the right to vote is part of the punishment.
Simon is also asking the legislature to enact civil and criminal penalties for those who harass, intimidate or threaten election workers. He said the 30,000 Minnesotans who work elections each year need to know they won't be targeted for simply doing their jobs.
"Every citizen’s right to express anger but when you interfere with a particular process like voting, that’s when you’ve stepped over a line," Simon elaborated.
"By doxing someone, by harassing some, by – and these are real Minnesota examples – by following someone to their car after hours in the parking lot and haranguing them, harassing them at home on the weekend, by physically accosting someone."
Another reform would allow 16- and 17-year-old students to pre-register to vote, so they'd automatically be registered upon turning 18. Katie Taffe, a senior at Hermantown High School who recently served as a governor at the YMCA Youth in Government Session, said she believes young people would embrace the chance to get a head start on registration.
"By allowing teens to pre-register to vote we have the opportunity to get more eligible Minnesotans involved in democracy while they are still in school."
Most of the changes Simon is seeking are already law in at least 20 other states, including some that are controlled by Republicans.
"These are proven ideas from laboratories of democracy all around the country," Simon remarked. "They are the law of the land in red states and in blue states."
Simon predicted automatic registration would drastically cut down on the number of voters who register on Election Day because their names would already be on the rolls when they arrive at their polling place. He said that's something opponents of same-day registration should appreciate.
He'll also ask the legislature to make it easier for the state to take advantage of federal Help America Vote Act election security grants. Minnesota is the only state that requires the legislature to release that money for its intended use.
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