Election bill that would make it easier to vote moving through Legislature

Bill would protect election workers and voters; shed more light on dark money ads

By: - February 14, 2023 6:00 am

A voter heads into a polling place at a fire station in Golden Valley on Aug. 9, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

A major elections reform bill moving through the Minnesota Legislature would protect the freedom to vote and make it harder to run political advertisements without saying who paid for them.

The House elections committee last week advanced the “Democracy for the People Act” (HF3) authored by Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL–Minneapolis, to the transportation committee.

The Senate companion bill (SF3) was also recently advanced by the Elections Committee. The bill includes automatic voter registration; allows 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote; restores voting rights to people on parole or probation; and seeks to protect voters, election officials and election volunteers from intimidation and harassment.

Author Sen. Liz Boldon, DFL-Rochester, said the bill defends, strengthens and modernizes Minnesota voting.

“We’ve certainly seen our democracy tested in the last few years,” Boldon said. “Threats and intimidation of voters and election officials has been on the rise across the country.”

Secretary of State Steve Simon said during a Senate Elections Committee hearing on the bill that automatic voter registration — in which people are automatically registered to vote when they apply for or renew their driver’s license — would save money and allow the state to add or update up to 450,000 registrations annually.

Automatic registration would reduce by 80%-90% the number of people who register on Election Day, Simon said, which would help the polls run more smoothly.

“There are members no doubt in this room and others who have their doubts about same-day or Election Day registration: If that’s the case, then this is the bill for you,” Simon said.

Republicans in recent years have tended to oppose measures that make it easier to vote, claiming these conveniences come with heightened risk of fraud, though post-election audits have found no evidence of widespread voter fraud. 

State Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board Executive Director Jeff Sigurdson said the board supports a bill provision that would require more reporting of who’s behind political ads. The state now requires reporting for ads that “expressly advocate” for a candidate — by using any of about a dozen words like elect, support, defeat, stop — to include verbiage that is the “functional equivalent” of express advocacy.

That has been the Federal Election Commission standard for almost 20 years, he said, and would require more groups to report their ads to the campaign finance board.

Sigurdson showed the committee a 2014 ad blasting Democrats for raising taxes and wasting tax dollars on a $77 million “luxury office building for themselves” rather than fixing roads. The ad ran 185 times in Minnesota and cost over a million dollars, but none of that had to be reported to the state campaign finance board because it didn’t expressly advocate for or against anything.

Boldon said Followthemoney.org gives Minnesota a failing grade at “following the money” spent in campaigns.

Eric Wang, an attorney representing People United for Privacy, argued organizations are entitled to keep donors’ identities private so they aren’t “outed and named, shamed, fired from their jobs and perhaps even fired upon.”

According to a Center for Media and Democracy investigation in 2018, People United for Privacy is a “front group” for the State Policy Network, a web of right-wing think tanks, advocacy groups, and other nonprofits that “provide academic legitimacy for policy ideas through right-wing reports, testimony at legislative hearings, and the media.”

Each side of America’s dividing line tends to blame the other, Wang said. To liberals, the dark money groups are all on the right, and to conservatives, they’re all on the left. But dark money is nonpartisan.

Buttressing his point, Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, said at one point in the hearing, “We would love to get rid of all the dark money, because most of it benefits someone other than my party.”

Ron Fein, legal director of Free Speech For People, which opposes “big money in politics,” supported a provision that prohibits political spending in elections by “foreign-influenced” corporations. Wealthy foreign entities like the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia are now banned from directly spending money in Minnesota or federal elections, but when these big funds own even a small percentage of a U.S. corporation, they can exert influence in U.S. politics, Fein said.

“If you own 1% of an S&P 500 corporation, you can get the CEO on the phone within 24 hours,” Fein said.

Shortly before the hearing, Boldon proposed an amendment stripping a provision that would give every registered voter a $50 coupon to donate to candidates — dubbed “democracy dollars.” Some Republicans said they found the bill more palatable without that provision.

Greenman, sponsor of the Senate companion bill, said she and Boldon decided to move the democracy coupons in separate bills. 

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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.