‘Minnesota Voting Rights Act’ nears governor’s signature after state Senate approval

Published 6:44 am Friday, April 19, 2024

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By Dana Ferguson, Minnesota Public Radio News

The Minnesota Senate approved an elections policy bill Thursday that would guarantee voters the right to sue if they face vote suppression or vote dilution.

On a 35-32 vote, the DFL-led chamber approved the provision as part of a broader bill with one Republican, Sen. Carla Nelson of Rochester, siding with them

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One item in the bill, which backers are calling the “Minnesota Voting Rights Act,” would guarantee in state law protections previously afforded under the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act.

The 8th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals last year ruled against a provision of the law that allowed voters to challenge voting policies or maps that were racially discriminatory. The court said that since voters weren’t directly named in the law, the right to challenge doesn’t apply.

Senate President Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, said Minnesota should cement the policy in state law and let voters sue over voter suppression and vote dilution, which is a racially driven form of preventing minority communities from electing candidates due to political boundaries being drawn in a fashion that prevents it.

“For the first time, since 1965, Minnesota no longer has the essential protections of the federal Voting Rights Act to combat racial discrimination in voting,” Champion said. “The Minnesota Voting Rights Act restores the right of Minnesota voters to challenge the discrimination that they experience.”

Republicans opposed the provision, saying the ruling hasn’t yet had time to be tested. Civil rights groups, meanwhile, lauded the addition.

“As Black voters face the greatest assault on voting rights since Jim Crow, Minnesota is embracing the opportunity to build on its progress in advancing the freedom to vote and join the growing list of states protecting voters against unequal access to the ballot,” Michael Pernick, voting rights attorney of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a news release.

The broader elections bill would also use a person’s address prior to incarceration for setting voting maps, rather than counting their residence in the region where they are incarcerated. It would also sharpen the teeth of a state law that makes it a crime  to make and share distorted images and videos intended to influence an election — often called deep fakes.

Republicans brought forward amendments that would require provisional balloting, setting Election Day for local governments in most cities to take place in even-numbered years and bar political parties from soliciting donations during the legislative session. Those were not adopted on the floor.

“We have to get back to making sure citizens believe in the elections. We haven’t done anything in these election changes to do that, to show that we can independently verify we’ve increased transparency,” said Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch.

Republicans also lamented what they saw as the partisan nature of many of the provisions brought forward in the broader bill. In past legislative sessions, governors have required bipartisan support for an election bill to sign it into law. They said the bill could reduce trust in elections, rather than bolstering it.

“That’s not going to lower the temperature of the discussions, it’s simply going to throw gasoline on the fire and that’s what we’re doing here,” Sen. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, said. “I would encourage members to think that through and come up with a solution that would have a much more bipartisan result.”

Democratic senators said the political parties had come to accept very different principles, making it difficult to agree. They said they’d tried to pick up GOP support.

“Outside of this building, away from this space where everything is hyper partisan, Minnesotans of all political stripes will see that we are delivering on what they sent us here to do, to protect and expand the freedom to vote,” said Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan.

The bill returns to the House to have changes confirmed before moving to the desk of DFL Gov. Tim Walz.