House OKs Minnesota elections bill addressing voter lawsuits, deep fake penalties

Published 9:14 am Wednesday, April 10, 2024

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By Dana Ferguson, Minnesota Public Radio News

The Minnesota House approved an election policy bill Monday that would grant voters the ability to sue over potentially discriminatory practices, creating a state response to a court decision that upended a similar federal law.

The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled last year that the federal Voting Rights Act doesn’t give individuals the right to sue since they’re not explicitly named in law. Because Minnesota is in the circuit, it is covered by that federal ruling.

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That’s why Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis, said it’s important for Minnesota to pass its own provisions to help voters.

“Enshrining these protections in Minnesota law has always been important but it is now critical given the 8th Circuit decision that upended decades of precedent and held that voters themselves no longer can challenge racially discriminatory laws and redistricting plans under the VRA,” she told colleagues before the 69-62 vote.

State courts would be able to consider several factors when determining if a law or ordinance is discriminatory, including whether people in a protected class have difficulty obtaining ballots or would be unduly held back from winning office.

Republicans said it’s not the state’s place to weigh in. Rep. Harry Niska, R-Ramsey, tried unsuccessfully to strike the voting rights act measure from the bill.

“What this does is takes our disagreement — or the majority’s disagreement at least — with the federal interpretation of law and tries to import that or create a state law,” Niska said. “The problem with creating an analogue to federal law is that the analogy doesn’t work.”

A companion bill is also nearing a floor vote in the Senate.

The broader election policy bill approved by the House also:

  • Clarifies definitions and stiffens penalties for those violating a prohibition around campaign-related deep fake material meant to interfere with elections. That would include disqualification from violators holding appointed or elective office.
  • Makes it easier for college students to register to vote when living on or near a college campus.
  • Updates the state’s law around language translation of voting materials in polling places with many residents who speak something other than English as a primary language.
  • Sets clearer standards around exit polling done by news media outside voting locations.
  • Makes clear that any request for a recount in the presidential race be done within a day of the official canvass completion. That recount would have to happen within a week.
  • It would also count people who are incarcerated at their last known address before entering state or federal prison for redistricting purposes. That varies from the current system that counts those individuals in the census block where they are incarcerated.