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Election bill may suppress voter turnout

In the 2016 general election, nearly 3 million Minnesotans turned out to vote, about 75 percent of eligible voters, the highest turnout in the nation. This is nothing new. Minnesota has been known as the "votingest state" for years and we take pride in the fact that we do our civic duty. Duluthians in particular are known for their high degree of civic engagement. I think it's something many of us are quite proud of.

A civic-minded culture partly explains why Minnesotans tend to vote more than other states, but the fact that Minnesotans enjoy such easy access to the ballot says even more. Our state has purposefully created a system that makes voting and registering to vote simple. But this spring, that culture of fair and open elections has come under attack. A controversial elections bill, spearheaded by the Minnesota GOP, has made its through four Senate committees and is hurtling towards a full vote on the Senate floor. The bill would introduce provisional ballots into Minnesota elections for the first time in state history.

A provisional ballot is used to record a vote when election officials have reason to question a voter's eligibility. Under this new legislation, if a voter doesn't have identification, for instance, or their name doesn't appear on the voter roll in the precinct that it should, that voter's ballot would be sealed, set aside, and only counted on the condition that the voter's eligibility could be verified. Essentially, a provisional ballot system creates what Secretary of State Steve Simon, who opposes the bill, has termed a "maybe" pile. Maybe your vote will be counted. Maybe it won't. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, of the more than 2 million provisional ballots cast in 2012, more than 25 percent weren't counted at all.

Another troubling scenario in which a voter could be downgraded to a provisional ballot would be if an election observer expressed concern about the possibility of a voter being ineligible. Election observers are typically deployed by parties, candidates, citizen groups or independent organizations for the purpose of witnessing the electoral process. To me, it seems obvious that giving virtually everyone the authority to call everyone else's voting eligibility into question is a slippery slope. If your eligibility is contested by an election observer, you get a provisional ballot, which, goes into the "maybe" pile.

Currently in Minnesota, voters who are challenged can take an oath on the spot, answer questions from an election judge, and then vote. It's called self-certification. This bill, however, would do away with that process.

Additionally, any challenge to a voter's status, regardless of whether it has merit or not, would be permanently and publicly available. In the event of county or judicial error, and even if a voter resolves their voter status, information on their status will be available to anyone. If, for instance, you happen to have the same name as a felon and are given a provisional ballot as a result, that (unwarranted) challenge will be publicly available, indefinitely. Most troubling is the fact that in many cases it is faulty data from the county itself that results in a voter receiving a provisional ballot. Once the county gets down to its process of verification, what data are they going to use? The faulty data, most likely.

We Minnesotans take pride in our high voter turnout. There's no need to set up a provisional balloting system to solve a problem that there's no proof exists. It would be a waste of resources, disenfranchise voters and set up another barrier to keep people from voting altogether. If we want to remain the "votingest state in the nation," passing this controversial bill, which would set Minnesota on a dangerous course of voter suppression, is the wrong direction to head.

Erik Simonson

Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, represents District 7 in the Minnesota Senate. He may be contacted at (651) 296-4188.