GOP elections bill would create ballot board observers; require ballot boards to be livestreamed

Democrats say the bill, spurred by false 2020 election claims, could lead to less absentee voting

By: - April 19, 2022 6:00 am

Voters in Minneapolis. Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.

A lot more eyes — and video cameras — could be watching absentee ballot boxes and boards that accept or reject absentee ballots under legislation making its way through the GOP-controlled Minnesota Senate.

A major elections bill (SF 3469) would mandate that counties allow observers — appointed by political parties and candidates — to watch ballot boards, which examine absentee ballot envelopes to determine if ballots should be accepted or rejected. 

These ballot board observers would watch the opening of ballot envelopes, acceptance or rejection of ballot envelopes, depositing of absentee ballots into ballot boxes and counting of ballots. The observers would be allowed within four feet of the ballots or envelopes, and would be allowed to question or challenge head election officials. 

The ballot boards’ work would be livestreamed on Election Day and the week before, when absentee ballots are processed, and viewable on the Minnesota Information Technology Services website. The bill would also require livestreaming of absentee ballot drop boxes. 

The bill, authored by Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, has since been rolled into a larger bill (SF 3975).

Kiffmeyer — a former two-term secretary of state — said the goal of her bill is more transparency in the processing of absentee ballots. 

Democrats and city and county groups said some of the provisions are unworkable, intrusive and could deter the increasingly popular option of absentee voting. 

An elections bill in the Democratic-controlled Minnesota House, meanwhile, would make it easier to vote by mail, double the time frame for processing absentee votes and beef up security to protect election workers. 

The vastly differing visions show the continued polarization over the 2020 election results, with many Republicans continuing to believe false claims about voter fraud and pushing elected officials to make changes that would have been unthinkable as recently as 2019. 

The Kiffmeyer bill would also prohibit the release of any precinct election results until all results from that precinct have been counted, including absentee ballots processed by 8 p.m. on Election Day. Kiffmeyer said that would give the public a fuller picture than “the premature disclosure” of results that she said caused confusion and concern in 2020.

Secretary of State Steve Simon said in a letter to lawmakers that Kiffmeyer’s bill could create additional burdens for election administrators and poses a risk to voter privacy.

“I understand the motivation in many provisions in the bill is increased transparency, but rigorous security measures are already built into our system, and we should work to bring the public further into the voting process using these existing procedures,” he wrote.

He told the Reformer too many provisions of the bill are unworkable, seem to be inspired by disinformation, and would “take Minnesota backwards.”

Matt Hilgart, policy analyst for the Association of Minnesota Counties, testified that requiring ballot board observers and livestreaming would create logistical and privacy concerns.

“Simply put, our local governments do not have the resources, infrastructure, staffing and expertise needed to pull off the livestreaming of drop boxes and ballot boards throughout the state,” he testified during a March hearing on Kiffmeyer’s bill.

Alex Hassel, a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities, said municipalities are concerned about the staffing and training needed to comply with the legislation. Livestreaming would be a huge administrative hurdle, and could dissuade people from signing up to be election judges because they’re already so closely scrutinized, she said. Hassel said cities also have security and privacy concerns about the ballot board observers.

The bill includes $11 million in state funding for these new mandates. But Hassel said the bill would likely still create significant costs for local election administrators.

The bill would also:

  • Require absentee ballots to be printed on paper with security markings.
  • Only allow absentee voters to put their own ballot in drop boxes — nobody else’s.
  • Require ballot drop boxes to be within 100 feet of city clerks’ offices and require that the ballots be collected, logged and reported daily.
  • Ban deputy county auditors or deputy city clerks from serving on ballot boards unless they were appointed election judges by parties. The League of Cities opposes this provision because it would require government workers to disclose their party preference.
  • Bar additional drop boxes from being added as Election Day nears; the boxes would have to be open during the entire 46-day absentee voting period. (Simon and Hassel said this limits flexibility and convenience for voters.)
  • Ban the secretary of state from adopting rules to implement provisions related to drop boxes.
  • Require that any mailing sent by a committee or private organization that includes an absentee ballot application or sample ballot include disclaimers clarifying that it’s not an official government document. They would be barred from being pre-filled with the voter’s information.

Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, questioned the need for the changes during a March hearing.

Kiffmeyer replied: “If you read the newspaper, you’ll pretty much see that there are questions about that.” 

She said when she was an election judge, “everything was open.” But now absentee ballot boards’ work is done behind closed doors, she said.

“And when doors have been closed for people, they ask questions about that process,” Kiffmeyer said. “This is an election that should be open and be able to be observed.”

Meanwhile in the House, an elections bill introduced by Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, (HF 4293) was rolled into a larger bill (HF 4293) and would:

  • Lengthen the time frame for election administrators to process absentee ballots from seven to 14 days before an election.
  • Spend $5 million on local election security grants.
  • Prohibit intimidation of or interference with election officials.
  • Expand all-mail balloting to communities with up to 400 registered voters.
  • Require absentee ballot applications or sample ballots sent by private groups to include disclaimers that they are not official government mailings.
  • Require that disclaimers on written communications by independent groups include their top three contributors.
  • Require at least one drop box for every 50,000 registered voters in the jurisdiction, with logs for each drop box reporting daily collections.

The League of Cities supports the House bill, including the portion beefing up security, saying its members have heard concerns from election judges about their safety and what they should do if someone tries to interfere with their work.

One recent poll found one in five local election officials are planning to quit their jobs before 2024, and over half fear for their colleagues’ safety at work, according to Insider.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.