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5 major changes in Minnesota's 'historic' new election law

Star Tribune: Brianna Bierschbach | Published on 5/23/2023

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Minnesota will soon join more than 20 states that automatically sign up eligible residents to vote, the largest voter expansion in the state since it adopted same-day registration five decades ago.

The policy, signed into law Friday by Gov. Tim Walz, could mean hundreds of thousands of more voters on the rolls in Minnesota. It's part of an expansive voting package that includes measures Democrats have been pushing for years but couldn't pass under divided government.

"The fact that Minnesota has some of the highest voter turnout in America year after year after year is not an accident. It's not a coincidence. It's not something in the water," said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, who called the bill "historic."

"Minnesotans value voting. Period. That is a fact. And that shows up in the laws that we pass and the reforms that we embrace," Simon added.

Former Minnesota Secretary of State Joan Growe advocated for automatic voter registration during her more than two decades in office. She was present for the bill signing.

"Fifty years it took," Walz said to Growe, shaking her hand after he signed the bill. "Let's do the next one sooner."

The sweeping change will also allow younger Minnesotans to preregister to vote and make it easier to vote by mail each election cycle. Republicans and conservative groups have been critical of two provisions that will boost reporting requirements for outside spending groups and crack down on disinformation in elections, steps they say could face constitutional challenges.

Here are the five major changes to the state's voting systems in the new law.

Automatic voter registration
Eligible Minnesotans getting or renewing their driver's license will be automatically registered. State officials estimate more than 400,000 Minnesotans are currently eligible to vote but not registered. People can opt out of being automatically registered when they renew their driver's license.

Minnesota's new law would go a step further than some other state laws by registering individuals when they submit an initial or renewal application for MinnesotaCare or Medical Assistance. Simon said his office will work with state agencies to set up this new system ahead of the 2024 election.

Pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds
Sixteen- and 17-year-olds in Minnesota will soon be able to preregister by submitting a standard voter registration application. Lawmakers have been pushing the change for years, arguing that high school students are talking about elections and voting in their classes and some want to be ready to vote right when they turn 18.

"It makes sure there's no excuse not to utilize that right," said Charlie Schmit, a 17-year-old Washburn High School student who advocated for the change. "It makes registering and actually voting a lot more accessible and easier to the entire population."

Permanent absentee voter list
The new law will make it easier for those who like voting by mail to get a ballot automatically sent to their home before each election.

Under the previous system, Minnesotans could ask for an absentee ballot application to be sent to their homes each election cycle. The change removes the application step, instead allowing them to choose to have an absentee ballot automatically set to their home prior to the election.

Crackdown on disinformation
With the rise in disinformation about elections, Democrats have created a new gross misdemeanor penalty for people who knowingly spread false information intended to prevent someone from voting.

That includes information around qualifications for registration, restrictions on voter eligibility, threats to physical safety related to voting or inaccurate information about where or when an election is being held. Civil action can be brought against someone who violates the law within 60 days of an election.

New disclosure requirements
The law adds disclosure requirements for all ads and mailings that could only be interpreted as intending to influence voters, while also barring certain political activity by foreign-influenced corporations. Some nonprofit groups have gotten around reporting ads and mailers by not using trigger words such as "vote for" or "vote against" a specific candidate.

Republicans have pushed back on those provisions, arguing that they fly in the face of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which opened the door to more outside money in elections. They said the bill also specifically targets foreign corporations but leaves out unions and other groups that tend to align with Democrats.

Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis, a voting rights lawyer who sponsored the bill, said the federal government has had the same disclosure requirement since 2002.

"We are on strong ground," she said.