House election bill: The good, the bad, and what’s missing


The State House has passed an election reform bill that has some good stuff in it, though not all good, and there’s a big omission. Still, it’s an improvement, and the House DFL can’t be accused of entirely blowing their chance, which is something I was concerned about. Like many lefty bloggers, I expressed concern some legislators would get skittish and forget they won a mandate to do some things. Most such posts I’ve seen have been about marriage equality, which is reasonable since there is a screamingly obvious opportunity to make progress there, and choking at the crucial moment seems off the agenda. I was thinking more broadly in that post in early January, including a large portion devoted to election reform. The photo ID amendment, while a lousy idea, led to a broader discussion about our election system, and its defeat offered a chance to address some things, some of which did get addressed:

  • There’s a procedure for voting after a candidate dies near election day. Hard to believe we’re only just now coming up with something 11 years after Paul Wellstone’s death showed such a procedure was necessary. The upshot is should that happen again, the election will be delayed until February.
  • Candidates can’t drop off the ballot because of a scandal. The ghost of Jon Grunseth? He was the Republican gubernatorial candidate in 1990 who dropped out when had a scandal shortly before the 1990 general election. He was replaced by Arne Carlson in a cobbled together procedure, and DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich lost the only opponent he could beat (just my recollection of my opinion at the time of course, but I recall I thought Perpich caught a big break getting Grunseth for his opponent). Well, good to have a procedure, sucky for the party of the scandal-ridden candidate.
  • Establishes no-excuse absentee voting, meaning you don’t need a reason you can’t vote on election day. That’s an incremental improvement, but it’s not the same as early voting, where voters just vote on a regular ballot and don’t have to muck around with making sure they fill out the application and envelope correctly too, like most states do now.
  • Start testing the use of electronic poll books. Pardon me quoting myself instead of pretending this is a new thought:

Regarding the other amendment victory, the voters’ opposition to photo ID for voting is less clear. Though most of the debate was about how lousy an idea photo ID is in policy terms, there’s no question some voters objected to putting it in the constitution, but might have been open to a statute. Now that there’s a DFL majority, there’s a chance to put the issue to bed. During the debate in the legislature last session, Sec. of State Mark Ritchie offered the Republicans support for electronic poll books, which avoid the disenfranchisement problem by putting the burden of supplying a photo on the state instead of the voter. Obviously for Republicans, disenfranchisement is a feature rather than a bug, but nonetheless, the electronic poll books could work politically by not only avoiding disenfranchisement, but by assuaging the concerns of people who think photos are foolproof security. Everyone but the tiny minority at Minnesota Majority will be happy. In terms of cost, some local election officials endorsed the electronic poll books on the grounds they would save money in terms of clerical work.

  • Lower the margin for an automatic recount from a half of one percent to a quarter. This is the part of the bill I don’t like. I get the statistical argument. We’ve had several recounts in recent elections and the hand recounts just don’t change the machine counts by more than a tiny portion. Then why did the GOP go so deep into debt for the gubernatorial recount in 2010 when the difference was almost exactly .5%? From the statements about not getting rolled again like in 2008, I’m guessing they believed their own propaganda (when you make things up, never believe your own propaganda, so GOP, step away from the Fox News NOW). So what about 2008? The Senate result reversed, which is pretty dramatic. Yes, dramatic, but still a tiny number of votes. The switch from Norm Coleman’s election night 200-something lead to Al Franken’s 300-someting win was roughly 500 votes out of 2 million, .00025% Even that leaves out that Coleman’s lead dropped in half when tallying errors were corrected (about 100 votes wrong out of 2 million), and most of Franken’s margin was wrongly rejected absentee ballots. The actual recount result was about 250 votes different. That’s pretty accurate
    So why object to lowering the threshold for a recount? Imagine Mark Dayton had won by just above instead of just below the .5% threshold. Would any Republican believe the election wasn’t stolen? Conspiracy theory-minded people will form their theories no matter what the facts, but still, best to deny them any real fact to hang on to — like certifying a close result without a recount. At least limit how much credibility the conspiracy theory can have. Statistically the lower threshold makes sense, and it probably could be even lower, but politically, leave it alone. It will just open up the DFL to charges of avoiding recounts.

Those are the parts that are in the bill. The big omission is the restoration of voting rights from former felons. Again pardon me for quoting myself, but no point in rewriting to say the same thing:

There was a broader discussion of voting rights and election procedures that opened up an opportunity to deal with the only thing resembling real election fraud, illegal voting and registering by former felons whose rights weren’t yet restored. These are an infinitesimal percentage of all votes, but almost 100% of the illegal votes. So clear it up with a straightforward standard used by some other states: if you’re out of jail, you can vote. Simple to understand, simple to enforce. Moreover, though the number of illegal votes is tiny, we have no idea how many legitimate voters stay away because they think a felony record means they can never vote again — a common misunderstanding most canvassers have likely run into — or they just aren’t clear on when they can vote and don’t want to risk going back to jail. Simplifying the standard would not only end all known voter fraud, but would expand voting rights.

I guess they didn’t listen to me on that one. Nationally, former felons are the biggest block of disenfranchised people, pending the implementation of photo ID laws that give that dubious honor to senior citizens or students, or some other group photo ID is meant to keep out. My best guess as to why reenfranchising former felons was left out is Gov. Dayton said any election bill would have to be bipartisan, and Republicans don’t want former felons to vote. I get why Republicans don’t want former felons to vote, because they think they’ll vote Democratic. Given which party is trying to restrict voting rights and which is trying to protect them, I wouldn’t be surprised if Republicans are right about that.

Just to muddy things a bit, I assume the governor is thinking changes have to be bipartisan to make the changes seem legitimate to voters. He might be right. Still, here we are again, just like with photo ID, gay marriage, the right to organize, that perpetual problem of expanding democracy: the rights of a a minority have to wait upon the comfort of people who hate them.