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Minnesota Democrats Pass Expansive Voting Rights Bill in Committee

The Democracy for the People Act would also require disclosure of dark money contributions in state races.

Sen. Bobby Joe Champion presides over the Minnesota State Senate in St. Paul, Minnesota on January 3, 2023.

This article was produced by Sludge, an independent, ad-free investigative news site covering money in politics. Click here to support Sludge.

The day after the Jan. 6, 2021 riots at the Capitol in D.C., Minnesota legislators in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party introduced legislation to address a host of election issues, from expanding voter registration to reforming campaign finance laws. With the state House of Representatives then under Republican control, the legislative package on elections stalled in committee.

But in the 2022 midterm elections, Minnesota Democrats won a trifecta in state government, flipping control of the House. This week, three committees of the Minnesota legislature advanced a bill that supporters say would increase voting access, combat dark money spending in elections, and more.

Titled the Democracy for the People Act, the bill was among the first legislative items introduced by Minnesota Democrats this year, a sign of its priority. The Senate Committee on Elections passed the bill on Feb. 7, with the House Committee on Elections and Senate Transportation Committee passing it the next day. The bill will be heard next week in the House Transportation, Finance, and Policy Committee before it can receive a vote by the full body. Democratic Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, who after the midterm election called to set up a “firewall” for free and fair elections in the state, said recently he would sign bills passed by the legislature that “protect the right to vote.”

The Democracy for the People Act would create automatic voter registration, restore the right to vote for people convicted of felonies who are no longer incarcerated, 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, and increase penalties for voter intimidation, among other things.

The bill would also increase disclosure of “dark money” by requiring all groups that spend money on legislative or statewide elections to disclose all donations above $200, and all groups that spend money on ballot questions to disclose donations of more than $500. It would prohibit foreign-influenced corporations — defined as those where a foreign owner holds more than one percent of total equity, among other conditions — from spending on behalf of state candidates or ballot measures.

The legislative package comes as many other states are passing bills to make voting access more restrictive. Since the 2020 elections, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, 20 states have enacted 33 laws that limit voting access, and last year seven states enacted laws that allow for partisan interference in the election process.

Minnesota Rep. Emma Greenman (D), author of the House version of the Democracy for the People Act and a former voting rights attorney, told Sludge, “The bill is a response to the urgent and overdue need to invest in, strengthen, and protect democracy. For the past few years, we’ve seen the need to respond and ensure that democracy is rooted in the communities of Minnesota and the voices of the voters.”

Greenman was first elected in 2020, and she related that one of her first days as a lawmaker coincided with the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, underscoring the challenges facing elections. Greenman sees the bill’s voting access provisions as a response to the controversy surrounding the 2020 presidential election results.

“Last year, democracy was on the ballot in Minnesota,” Greenman said. “One in four members running for the legislatures questioned the outcome of the 2020 election or were outright election deniers.” Greenman mentioned the Secretary of State race — which pitted Democratic candidate Steve Simon, who supports expanded voter registration, against Republican Kim Crockett, who disputed the 2020 presidential election outcome — as presenting “a contrast: a vision of democracy that’s inclusive and accessible, or one rooted in conspiracy theories and a restrictive vision of who should be able to participate.” Simon won the contest by more than nine points, with over 54% of the vote in the midterm election.

Greenman said that in the lead-up to the November election where Democrats won a state trifecta, democracy was one of the main issues about which people in Minnesota were talking. “What we heard on the doors is that people really care that we have an inclusive multiracial democracy, they really want us to do the work to be sure that their voices are the ones that are driving policy decisions and politics,” she said.

Greenman said that the Democracy for the People Act’s money in politics provisions aim to “put Minnesota voters, not corporations or wealthy interests, at the center of decision-making.” In the previous legislative session, she said, the bill had been scrutinized by six committees and during at least 10 hours of testimony in the Minnesota House over the past two years.

“It’s important that voters know who is spending money to influence their votes and make choices based on that,” Greenman said. “Current disclosure laws don’t provide anywhere near sufficient transparency around independent spending.”

The Democracy for the People Act has been buoyed by We Choose Us, a coalition of grassroots organizations, unions, and advocacy groups in Minnesota, and its provisions align with the coalition’s Expanding Democracy Agenda. Lilly Sasse, the campaign director, told Sludge, “Coming out of the 2020 election, and 2016, and the rise of authoritarianism nationally, it caused us in Minnesota to have to make a choice between realizing a multiracial democracy and an authoritarian way of governing. To do that, we agreed we had to have an on-offense strategy, calling for what multiracial democracy looks like and who was included, rather than just defending against the negative.”

Sasse said, “In talking to different organizations who have been leading the work for decades in our state and new groups that haven’t been on the policy wonk side but have been in the practice of building of multiracial democracy — immigration groups, racial justice, reproductive freedom organizations — we tried to get a sense from people of what it could look like to crush these silos and form a coalition.”

Groups that became coalition partners include the League of Women Voters of Minnesota, racial and economic justice group Unidos MN, Clean Water Action, Planned Parenthood Minnesota, and climate group Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light.

“The original Democracy for the People Act was introduced in 2021, and we used that as a launchpad, getting to the point where the coalition launched in June 2022 with events in Duluth and Rochester, a statewide effort that reflected the geography across the state. We Choose Us launched with 22 coalition partners, and engaged in democracy summits and public feedback forums,” Sasse continued.

“In a post-election poll on voters’ feelings around democracy, behind the top issues of inflation and rising prices, money in politics was a unifying force among Democrats, Republicans, and independents,” Sasse said.

The Democracy for the People Act originally would have also broadened a Minnesota program called the political contribution refund (PCR), where voters can get up to $50 per year in contributions to qualified candidates or parties reimbursed by the state. The bill, as introduced, proposed moving the PCR program forward by issuing “democracy dollar” vouchers to all registered voters as two coupons valued at $25 apiece, redeemable for campaign funding from the state. However, after the Senate’s committee hearing last week, the democracy dollars provisions were stripped from the omnibus. According to Sasse, the democracy dollars program will be introduced as a standalone bill and campaigned for by We Choose Us.

Sasse said that the PCR system has been underutilized in the state and could do more to encourage small-dollar donations to Minnesota candidates. “The incentive for folks to use the PCR is low, because campaigns have to send a receipt to a donor, who can go months without that $50 in their bank account,” Sasse said. “We wanted to have a system that modernized our PCR and turned it into what it’s truly meant to do, which is give everyone an opportunity to contribute to candidates and causes they believe in.”

The We Choose Us coalition held a launch event for the Expanding Democracy Agenda on Jan. 17 at the state capitol, where organizations met with legislators and 300 members of the partner groups participated in a multiracial and multigenerational rally to advocate for their legislative priorities. Coalition members broke off into constituent groups for about 40 conversations with their legislators, where Sasse said they tied the issue of an inclusive democracy to their work in areas like addressing climate challenges. The coalition’s testifier program gathered more stories for individuals to present at hearings for legislators.

Speakers at the Democracy Day event, coming out to show support for the omnibus bill, included Minnesota Secretary of State Steven Simon, Attorney General Keith Ellison, Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman, and Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, along with coalition group leaders.

“The transparency and foreign influence provisions are responses to people seeing the Citizens United decision and feeling that corporations and wealthy special interests have too much power in decision making,” Sasse said.

Outside spending to influence voters by groups whose funding sources are often opaque has been rampant in Minnesota. A study released in March 2021 by the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs found that in the 2020 cycle, independent expenditures made up the majority of spending on state House races. The authors of the study also found that campaign donors in the 2018 Minnesota elections were invited to testify to legislators in favor of bills they favored and against bills they did not.

If the standalone bill for “democracy dollars” advances, Minnesota could be the first state to pick up vouchers as a tool to boost public campaign financing. The democracy voucher model first adopted by Seattle in 2015 has grown in use there over the past three municipal election cycles, and was recently adopted by Oakland voters.

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