Protecting Voting Rights in Minnesota

Forces that have spearheaded a national sweep of restrictive voting laws have Minnesota in the crosshairs

By Mo Perry

In 2012, Minnesota voters rejected a Voter ID constitutional amendment. However, since then similar voter suppression efforts succeeded in other states and is being advanced, once again, in Minnesota. MCF advocates for a more prosperous, inclusive, and equitable Minnesota by eliminating disparities. This includes preserv­ing and strengthening democratic systems and civic engagement. MCF works to expand and protect voting rights, including easier voter registration through reforms such as automatic voter registration and restoring the voting rights of felons who are no longer incarcerated.

Minnesota has ample reason for pride in its strong history of fair and accessible election processes. In 1974, it became one of the first states in the nation to allow same-day voter registration, one of the factors that contribute to our consistently high voter turnout (accord­ing to data-tracking organization Minnesota Compass, Minnesota had the nation’s highest turnout among eligible voters in the 2016 presi­dential election, though turnout rates were lower among Minnesotans of color.)

Our use of paper ballots creates a useful audit trail, proving critical in recent recounts in tight elections for governor and senator, and our past two governors have shared a commitment to passing only new voting legislation that receives broad bipartisan support—a crucial safeguard against some of the more baldly partisan voting restrictions and redistricting campaigns that have recently been realized in other states.

Resist Complacency

But these points of justifiable pride may also contribute to a danger­ous sense of complacency. Since 2010, 23 states have passed new voting restrictions, ranging from strict voter ID laws to registration restrictions to decreasing windows for early voting. Passage of these restrictions is accelerating—2017 saw more new restrictive voting laws passed than 2015 and 2016 combined—and with the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling striking down critical provisions of the Voting Rights Act, states that previously had to submit changes to their voting processes to federal review are now free to proceed without oversight.

The 2016 election was the first presidential election in more than 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act—a land­mark piece of civil rights legislation passed by the Johnson adminis­tration in 1965 that has historically received broad bipartisan congres­sional support, with extensions of the act signed by Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush.

But while Reagan was signing the VRA extension of 1982 with one hand, he was busy appointing a record number of federal judges with the other, laying the foundation for successful court challenges to the VRA in the years to come. The majority opinion of the 2013 Supreme Court decision rendering moot critical provisions of the VRA was delivered by Chief Justice John Roberts, a former clerk for Reagan-ap­pointed Chief Justice William Rehnquist and aide in Reagan’s Justice Department who had been working to oppose civil rights legislation (in the name of color-blindness) since the 1980s.

While advocates for restrictive voting legislation often couch their arguments in terms of ensuring election integrity and combating fraud, the effect is an undeniable suppression of the vote, particularly among people of color and low income citizens. “We’ve seen the parti­san and racial attempt to manipulate the system for gain,” says Emma Greenman, Director of Voting Rights and Democracy at the Center for Popular Democracy. “We’re losing ground in terms of a non-parti­san commitment to ensuring that every eligible person can vote and that that vote means something.”

Consider What Happened in Wisconsin

This new front in the decades-long war on voting rights is being waged not only in southern states with the worst history of race-based voter disenfranchisement, but also in states with progressive traditions. In 2011, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature and statehouse passed an onerous voter ID law; a study by political scien­tists at the University of Wisconsin found that the law disenfranchised nearly 17,000 (and possibly more) registered Wisconsin voters in the 2016 election, and disproportionately affected African American and low-income voters.

Wisconsin’s example should serve as a stark warning to Minnesota, according to Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America (and a keynote speaker at MCF’s 2018 annual conference). “If voter suppression can work in a state like Wisconsin, with a long progressive history and a culture of high civic participation, it can work anywhere,” writes Berman in Mother Jones.

Forces that threaten to undermine voter participation have been active in Minnesota and most visibly in 2012, when a voter ID Consti­tutional amendment was defeated by voters 52 percent to 26 percent. (Critics of the amendment successfully turned around early popular support for the law by emphasizing its potential to disenfranchise elderly and rural Minnesotans, as well students and veterans who use student or military IDs.)

Now, some of the same players behind the push for voter ID are shifting their focus to challenging Minnesota’s system of same-day voter registration through legislative action. “Our system is not inoc­ulated from what we’re seeing around the country,” says Greenman. “There are attacks coming straight on or sideways on our accessible systems, and we’ll see more of that.”

Catherine Gray, Director of Impact Strategy and Civic Engagement at The Minneapolis Foundation, agrees: “Ever since the voter ID amendment was defeated here, new proposals have popped up all over to limit participation. Foundations need to understand that just because [protecting voter rights] looks like it was successful, that doesn’t mean other things aren’t afoot that could undermine it.”

Minnesota State Senator Mary Kiffmeyer, one of the original ar­chitects of the voter ID amendment, introduced a bill in the 2017-18 legislative session (since rolled into a larger election omnibus bill) that

would introduce provisional ballots in Minnesota elections for the first time in state history, eliminating the ability of voters to self-certify their eligibility at their polling place on election day. “Provisional balloting can become a pretext to not giving someone a ballot that counts,” says Common Cause Minnesota Executive Director Annastacia Belladon­na-Cerrara. “It serves as a barrier; it’s almost a behind-the-door voter ID provision. It might not be labeled as such, but in impact it would have the same chilling effect.”

Finding a System For Everybody

Supporters of the bill say it’s needed to support election integrity, but countless studies have shown that voter fraud at the polls is practical­ly nonexistent. “With outside groups looking and looking and looking for fraud, it just doesn’t exist,” says former Minnesota Secretary of State Joan Growe. “We don’t have people who run around to six precincts and try to vote. There have been numerous studies showing that the fraud issue is a red flag.”

That’s not to say that threats to our election system don’t exist. As recent headlines about Russia’s attempts to interfere with states’ electronic voter registration rolls suggest, precautions are very much needed—but the aim of all democratically minded people, regardless of party affiliation, should be to maximize access and engagement among all eligible citizens while minimizing security threats. Initia­tives such as automatic and online voter registration have proved to be successful in increasing voter participation in states such as Colorado and Oregon, while also leading to cleaner registration rolls.

“If people are serious about security concerns, then let’s have a real conversation about how we can strengthen our system together,” says Greenman. Nothing less than the integrity and functionality of our democracy is at stake. “It’s not just about what’s fair, it’s about what will make things work better,” says Gray. “What will get us as a state ahead more quickly? Drawing on the expertise of everyone in our community. We want a system that’s really about having everybody help row the boat.”

Mo is a writer and actor in the Twin Cities. She is the co-founder of Logosphere Storysmiths and was named a 2017 Young Entrepre­neur of the Year by Minnesota Business Magazine. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Experience Life, Delta Sky, Citizens League Voice, Minnesota Monthly, and more. She'll be onstage at the Guthrie Theater this spring in their production of An Enemy of the People.


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