Minnesota’s secretary of state could modify certain election procedures by emergency order if a bill heard Wednesday were enacted into law. MG111-1, a bill draft brought forth by Secretary of State Steve Simon and House Democrats, would authorize the secretary to do just that in the event of a public health pandemic. It would also appropriate two allotments of federal funding made available to the state for election security purposes under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The bill draft was discussed in the House Subcommittee on Elections Wednesday, but no actions were taken. More details on the emergency orders and HAVA transfers and appropriations are included at the end of this blog.
Secretary Simon testified that one-time emergency changes are needed, especially after witnessing the ugly scene with Wisconsin voters Tuesday. He stated polls indicate 66 percent of Americans say they’re uncomfortable going to a polling place. “After talking with elections professionals from all levels of government throughout the state, the goal became very clear to me: We need to minimize exposure at polling places and maximize voting by mail,” Simon said in a statement.
Other supporters of the bill say these steps are necessary for a variety of reasons. Election judges, who are usually older retirees who are at higher risk, are dropping out and they will be difficult to replace. Rep. Bernardy (New Brighton) stated where they normally have 15 election judges assigned to each precinct for presidential elections, they now only have 5 per precinct. In addition to the staffing issues, concerns were shared about the ability to maintain social distancing in November and the potential for standing out in the cold for hours waiting to vote.
In contrast, the GOP does not support this bill and is a long way from doing so. Rep. Nash (Waconia) took the lead on this saying he is willing to work with the author; however, he and his caucus have concerns about “electioneering”, voter fraud, and the ability for rural communities with less internet access to participate.
Authorizes the secretary of state to issue emergency orders to accommodate voters and the elections process in the event of an infectious disease outbreak. The secretary’s powers apply during a peacetime emergency declared by the governor. Only upon the governor’s certification that the outbreak, or executive orders directing a state response to the outbreak, may prevent an election from being conducted safely and in accordance with the state’s election law. Some of specific orders the secretary may make after consultation with impacted governments include the ability to:
- Conduct the election entirely by mail.
- Close or relocate of high-risk polling places.
- Consolidate polling places or establish one or more vote centers that have the capacity to serve all voters in an affected jurisdiction.
- Authorization for the county auditor or municipal clerk to train and designate employees of a health care facility or hospital to administer the absentee voting process to temporary or permanent residents or patients in those facilities.
This section would be effective the day following final enactment.
Help America Vote Act Transfers and Appropriations
This bill would appropriate a total of $17.18 million from the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) Account to the secretary of state to improve the security and administration of elections, consistent with the requirements of the federal HAVA law.
This dollar amount largely reflects funding available to the state from two recent federal appropriations: (1) the Consolidated Appropriations Act, enacted in December 2019 ($7.4 million); and (2) the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), enacted in March 2020 ($6.9 million). The remainder of the appropriation amount reflects the required 20% state match for each federal allotment ($1.4 million and $1.3 million, respectively).
In 2018, Congress allocated $6.6 million to Minnesota, also for election security expenses. That full amount, as well as the state match, was appropriated during the 2019 legislative session and is available for use under existing law. This section would be effective the day following final enactment.