Voter registration, an issue that some had optimistically assumed was resolved two decades ago by the National Voter Registration Act, has emerged – no, erupted – as a major issue, a mighty weapon wielded by forces that are only too well aware that the place to stifle the democratic process is the voting booth. Tinkering with the electoral process has taken various forms shaped to the vulnerability of the venue. In Minnesota, the pressure point was the Voter ID Amendment to the State Constitution. Originally portrayed as a benign detail the pernicious proposal was soundly trounced by the electorate in the last election.
An unintended consequence of that ill-fated rush to exclude has awakened Minnesotans to the importance of voters’ rights and inspired elected officials scrutinize the details with unaccustomed care.
The first legislative measures to take stage center are related proposals to allow early voting and to eliminate a requirement that people have a valid excuse to vote by absentee ballot. Thirty two states offer some form of early voting in which there is no requirement for a valid excuse. In some cases the votes are counted immediately; in others votes are not tabulated until election day and voters have a chance to change their vote. Many Minnesotans consider early voting a non-issue since they have assumed that Minnesota has had early voting in place all along.
The proposal now before the state Legislature would allow Minnesota voters to vote up to 15 days before an election. On-site registration would still be available following the same requirements as are currently in place for Election Day registration. While opponents fear easy early voting gives too much power to parties and voter fraud, proponents of absentee voting argue that it is more convenient for voters and that it would shorten the lines on Election Day. Governor Dayton has not weighed in except to be very clear about the fact that any decision will have to have bipartisan support.
With heightened awareness of the import of the electoral process per se, Minnesotans may be interested to learn more about what is happening in other states and at the national level. The Brennan Center for Justice which has long studied voting practices recently produced a major proposal to “modernize voter registration and bring America’s election system into the 21st Century.” The plan, known as the Voter Registration Modernization (VRM), is the centerpiece of the Voter Empowerment Act introduced last month by a raft of legislators and prominently mentioned in the President’s State of the Union Address.
Those who hatched their nefarious plans to skew the American electoral process by tinkering with the “details” may find that shining light on those details has illuminated the gaps in a system that is now enjoying unprecedented attention.
Minnesotans out-voted every state in the nation in the last election. We captured the national headlines with defeat of the Voter ID Amendment, once on its way to easy passage. We have reason to be proud of our record. We have a concomitant responsibility to follow what is happening in the State Legislature and in Congress. We know from experience what it takes to keep a collective eye on the electoral process — constant vigilance is the price of liberty.