While lawmakers in dozens of states have recently introduced legislation that could make it harder for people to vote, lawmakers in Minnesota countered the trend by passing a bill that will increase election access, including streamlining the voter registration process.
Last night, the Minnesota Senate passed an elections bill, the Democracy for the People Act, along party lines, with 34 members of the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party voting in favor and 33 Republicans voting against the bill. The bill passed the Minnesota House on April 13 with the same text in a vote of 70-57. The state’s Democratic Governor Tim Walz recently said that he will sign the bill into law.
The Democracy for the People Act would create automatic voter registration when people update their drivers’ licenses or interact with the state government, allow voters to permanently opt-in to receive an absentee ballot for every election, enable 16- and 17-year olds to pre-register to vote, enhance disclosure requirements for secretive groups spending in elections, and increase penalties for voter intimidation, among other things. Bill advocates say the automatic process for voter registration complements another Minnesota bill, enacted in March, that restores the right to vote for people convicted of felonies who are no longer incarcerated.
Yesterday’s vote also makes Minnesota the first state to pass a ban on foreign-influenced corporations spending money to influence state elections. Once in effect, that provision of the bill will prohibit any company that is five percent or more owned by multiple foreign owners, or one percent or more owned by a single foreign owner, from spending money in Minnesota state or local elections or donating money to a super PAC or other entity to spend. Supporters say the measure will prevent companies with appreciable foreign investment interests from using opaque spending groups to sway Minnesota elections or ballot initiatives.
In 2022, Minnesota Democrats held the state House and flipped control of the Senate, with Gov. Walz winning re-election to give the party a trifecta. In January, the Democracy for the People Act was introduced by lead authors Rep. Emma Greenman and Sen. Liz Boldon just ahead of the two-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., which Greenman told Sludge illustrated the need for strengthening elections and expanding voting rights. It was given a prominent bill number in each chamber—HF 3 and SF 3—signaling its priority for the Democratic caucus.
“What you see here in the Democracy for the People Act is really extraordinary,” said Democratic Secretary of State Steve Simon in a press conference yesterday ahead of the Senate vote. “It’s a once in a generation opportunity for Minnesota to be the kind of state that voters said they wanted. Democracy was on the ballot last fall, but it was more than about candidates. It was about approaches to our democracy.”
The Democracy for the People Act was supported by We Choose Us, a coalition of 37 grassroots organizations, unions, and advocacy groups in Minnesota, as part of its policy agenda called Expanding Democracy. Lilly Sasse, the coalition’s campaign director, told Sludge, “While we’re seeing attacks on multiracial democracy across our country, we’re proud to live in a state where we are working to advance pro-democracy reforms and take steps to realizing a multiracial democracy.”
“I think this is just the first step—there’s more we need to do, but this bill will have the biggest impact since 1974, when Minnesota passed same-day voter registration,” Sasse told Sludge. She mentioned pre-registration of voters and providing voting resources across languages as two of the provisions that would invite more people to participate in voting. “In this bill, we’re signaling to young folks that their voices matter in the political process,” Sasse said.
Speaking at the press conference, Sasse said the groups in the We Choose Us coalition had been building support for the Expanding Democracy agenda since the campaign’s formal launch in June of last year. After the 2022 election, the coalition gathered more testimony from Minnesotans about the importance of countering attacks on democracy. In March, a lobby day at the Capitol connected constituents with legislators to discuss expanding access to voting. This month in the legislature, testimony in favor of the Democracy for the People Act came from Leota Goodney, a retired CPA who serves elderly and disabled clients; Charlie Schmidt, a 17-year old election judge who encouraged his high school friends to pre-register to vote; and Khadar Muhamed, a young leader in the Somali community, who said the bill’s provisions providing voting resources in multiple languages would reduce voter intimidation at the polls.
Last month, the We Choose Us coalition released results of a poll taken a week after the 2022 elections, conducted by Lake Research Partners and surveying voters across parties and geographic regions of the state. The results found that two-thirds of voters said it was important for Minnesota to protect and expand democracy, an issue that came in second behind addressing inflation and rising prices. Steps to bar foreign influence in elections were supported by 80% of Minnesotans, the poll found, with 73% in favor of an automatic voter registration process when people take actions like signing up for Medicaid.
The bill’s lead House author Greenman told local media that as many as 400,000 Minnesotans could be enrolled through automatic voter registration, or AVR for short. Nationwide, 22 states have an AVR process when people interact with offices like departments of motor vehicles, according to the nonpartisan Voting Rights Labs’ tracker, with Minnesota looking to soon join.
Sean Lim, program director of the Minnesota Youth Collective, told legislators in testimony, “There are countless benefits to AVR: data within the system is accurate, verified, and up to date, every time a voter interacts with a government agency like the DMV, updated to reflect any address or name change, when they present documents confirming citizenship. It is safe, efficient, and seamless.
“This is great for the thousands of college students and renters I’ve engaged with, who are busy and highly mobile and move annually,” Lim said.
A record number of bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year to restrict voting access, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. As of February, the Brennan Center’s tracker of state voting rights bills recorded more than 150 legislative items nationwide have been introduced this year that would make it harder for eligible Americans to register to vote, stay on the voting rolls, or cast a ballot, with 27 more bills introduced that could increase partisan interference in elections. Such restrictive voting bills, introduced in Minnesota and states including Arizona, Maine, Tennessee, and Texas, would disproportionately impact voters of color, sometimes by discouraging registered voters from casting a ballot, according to the Brennan Center.
At the press conference, the bill’s lead Senate author Boldon said, “I come to this work because there is work I want to do making sure that we have healthcare access for everyone, that we are taking action to prevent gun violence, that we are taking action on the climate crisis, that we are taking action to prevent homelessness, that we are taking action to invest in education. I know that all that other work is predicated on having a strong and functioning multiracial, multigenerational, inclusive democracy.”
The bill’s ban on foreign-influenced election spending by corporations has roots in legislation passed by ordinance in Seattle, Washington in 2020, with similar initiatives introduced in cities including San Jose, California. A dissenting opinion in the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United warned that allowing unlimited spending by outside groups in elections opened the door to undisclosed political interference by foreign oligarchs, international fossil fuel giants, or wealthy foreign investors with stakes in U.S. companies that seek to influence laws.
To increase transparency of the interests spending on elections, the Democracy for the People Act would adopt federal standards to define when a group’s communication advocates for the election or defeat of a candidate—even in cases when the message lacks so-called “magic words” like “vote for” or “defeat.” The reform would enhance the number of groups that spend money to influence political contests and are required to disclose their spending to the state.
“Minnesotans are now at the center of elections, not foreign corporations and wealthy special interests,” Sasse told Sludge. “This bill is a constitutionally compliant way to ensure that our elections are run by Minnesotans, for Minnesotans.”