Minneapolis voting rights attorney lays out DFL plan for election reform

By: - January 5, 2023 6:00 am

Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis. Courtesy photo.

State Rep. Emma Greenman has worked as a voting rights attorney all over the nation, from Georgia to Arizona. As vice chair of the House Elections Committee, the Minneapolis Democrat will play a key role in changing election laws.

During her first term, her election reform bill could not overcome opposition from Republicans, who were more focused on preventing what she called the myth of voter fraud, by making it more difficult to vote. 

But now that the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has taken control of the Legislature, Greenman says they plan to strengthen voting rights, shine a light on dark money saturating elections and protect election workers who have been under increasing scrutiny amid often baseless election fraud suspicions.

We talked to Greenman about what to expect this session. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

You have some ideas for legislation restoring voting rights for people convicted of felonies and so on?

I came into the Legislature two years ago. We were sworn in on a Tuesday, and Jan. 6 was on a Wednesday. So I (entered) the caucus Thursday with some urgent and overdue work, stuff that folks had worked on a long time, that they were starting to make progress on, like modernization, like automatic voter registration… taking on the role of money in politics.

In Minnesota, we really had a conversation about what elections and what democracy looks like. One out of four Republican state legislators were election deniers or questioned the 2020 election and talked a lot about restrictions, and I would say had a fear-based vision of democracy. There was a lot of suspicion and a lot of doubt.

And the fact that (Secretary of State) Steve (Simon) was the top vote-getter in the state — which is not normal…. 

Really?

Democracy was on the ballot. And people had two different visions and they showed up around the state for a vision that was both inclusive and also rejected extremism that we’ve seen on the other side.

And so one of our top bills will be my Democracy for the People Act, which Sen. Lindsey Port has been working on for two years in the Senate… It strengthens the freedom to vote — so getting us closer to a world where we have the full participation of everyone and we decrease generational disparities, racial disparities and regional disparities. 

It protects and strengthens our democratic institutions and protects election workers. We’ve seen rising levels of intimidation and fear.

It does start to take on this issue of ensuring that Minnesota voters are making decisions and not corporations or all these special interests. 

It has rights restoration for folks on probation and parole in the community.

So when you say “rights restoration” are you talking about restoring voting rights for felons who served their time?

Folks on probation and parole is probably the most accurate way to put it. Once you have left incarceration, when you’re in the community — whether you’re on probation or parole — you will get your rights restored.

Tell us more about the bill. 

It has automatic voter registration so that when you go get your license, you’re registered to vote. 

Along with prohibitions against voter intimidation, it includes provisions that ensure language access in places where folks need a little more support to be able to understand the rules and vote. And then a policy that will ensure that folks know who’s spending money in their elections and give voters a chance to participate with a modernization of the political contribution refund (in which Minnesotans can get $50 in campaign contributions refunded by the state), modernizing it and making it easier to use. Instead of asking them to lay out 50 bucks and wait three weeks to get it back, (it would) give every registered voter a coupon that they could use. And so it would make it a little more equitable and easier to use.

Get a coupon so they wouldn’t actually have to get reimbursed at all?

Yes. … We’re thinking about building on this program that has been a really strong reason that I think we still have grassroots candidates coming from all over the state, in both parties, that really represent their districts. … we’re talking about bringing it into the 21st century and making it easier for voters to utilize and more equitable for voters who may not have that $50.

When you talk about shedding light on dark money, what do you have in mind?

Our disclosure rules haven’t changed since way before Citizens United in 2010. (Editor’s note: That’s the U.S. Supreme Court decision banning restrictions on independent campaign expenditures, which opened the floodgates of money in politics.) There’s all this independent money flowing that is not coordinated with the candidate, is not accountable to really anybody. What we have said is it’s important that voters know who’s spending the money and what their interests are… 

There’s another provision that tries to prohibit foreign influence corporations from spending on our elections, which is also a problem. I think that there’s gonna be a lot of really good ideas around disclosure/transparency of secret spending. It is something that you hear about a lot from voters… I think there’s a lot of folks in the Legislature who have been talking to voters and really thinking about how we make sure that we have a real robust, inclusive democracy where voters can have confidence that it’s their voice, their influence calling the shots.  

You’d also like to expand mail-in voting?

What we have seen in 2020 and 2022 is voters like both voting at home and voting by mail. They like early-in person, where you can go to a county seat or a government office and vote on a Saturday maybe if that Tuesday is gonna be hard for you. And they like voting in person too. 

Minnesota has a trusted tradition of strong, local elections administration and really accessible voting, and I think as we get into 2024, people really are looking for those options, and so what the bill does is it strengthens all voting access in the polls, including an option to get a mail ballot every cycle. 

We’d create a permanent voting list that would say if you like voting by mail — there’s a bunch of states who have this: Arizona has it, California has it — where you sign up and you get a ballot in the mail every election. It’s good for elections administrators because it means they don’t have to send out additional mailings and can plan for those ballots… so that is a very common sense and simple fix.

What about a statewide ranked-choice voting system?

Our focus is strengthening and protecting democratic institutions and freedom to vote. I think the conversation about ranked-choice voting and whether we change the way people vote, whether we change the machines we use, that’s a conversation we’re definitely having at the Capitol but that is a different conversation.

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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. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.

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