Republicans' push for voter ID and a provisional ballot system appears to have failed at the Minnesota Capitol, and Democrats' hopes to expand voter access and felon voting rights have fallen by the wayside, too.
A deal on the bill that helps fund elections — among many other aspects of state government — leaves out controversial voting provisions that have been sources of contention in Minnesota and across the country.
"In the end, I think neither side was 100% happy with it, but I think that's when you get to a good compromise," Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, the lead House negotiator on the bill, said Wednesday. "No one is claiming victory."
A draft of the agreement negotiators struck on the state government bill does include other new items, including a security requirement for absentee ballot drop boxes and a veterans court program to direct people struggling with post-traumatic stress or addiction to treatment rather than prison.
The compromise is still winding its way through the legislative process, and Nelson predicted it would be one of the final measures lawmakers pass as they aim to wrap up the next two-year budget by July 1. His Senate counterpart, Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, declined to comment as she reviewed the final language of the bill, which has yet to be voted on by either chamber.
Minnesota's divided Legislature, with Democrats controlling the House and the GOP in charge of the Senate, has meant many of the budget bills lawmakers are finalizing have been devoid of significant policy changes. In the case of elections rules in Minnesota, that's not such a bad thing, said Nick Harper of the League of Women Voters.
"No change is not going to be terribly bad for Minnesota because we're already in a good place," Harper said, noting that the state had the highest voter turnout in the nation in the 2020 election. But he added, "No changes in other states really leaves voters behind."
Republican legislators wanted to require voters to show a government-issued photo identification to cast a ballot. Anyone without one would submit a provisional ballot and later would have to give election officials proof of identity. Minnesota is one of three states without the provisional requirement because voters can register on Election Day, and Democrats have opposed the GOP proposal as damaging to the state's same-day system.
Democrats, meanwhile, had been fighting to restore voting rights for felons who have been released from prison. They also wanted to set up automatic voter registration, permanently end the witness requirement for absentee voting and increase enforcement against voter intimidation.
While none of the hot-button legislation around voting made it into the agreement, the deal includes a couple of changes to election policy.
The bill would set minimum security standards for the drop-box containers where voters can deposit their absentee ballots. The ballot receptacles were popular in the 2020 election amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but "there was nothing really on the books dealing with them," Nelson said.
Republicans were concerned about ballot harvesting, where a third party submits other voters' ballots, he said. The bill would require a security camera to constantly monitor the sites.
"If I went and every day was dropping off 100 ballots, they could see that someone is doing that," Nelson said.
Voters supported the drop-box change, said Deborah Erickson, chairwoman of the Minnesota Association of County Officers, which helps run elections.
"Election security is always our top concern, and we see video monitoring of drop boxes that are not manned by election staff as a way to offer that service at a more flexible schedule in a secure manner," Erickson said.
Secretary of State Steve Simon's spokeswoman Risikat Adesaogun said drop-box rules need to be consistent throughout the state.
"This deal incorporates in law many of the best practices we developed for the 2020 election year, so no matter where people vote, they have the same opportunity to cast their ballot," she said.
Legislators also agreed to bump back the deadline for using millions of dollars in federal funding from the Help America Vote Act [HAVA] to 2027 from 2023. The cash is intended to improve election security and administration.
Outside of elections, the state government budget bill agreement, which is scheduled for an informational hearing Thursday morning, could mean a big change for veterans who end up in the criminal justice system. Some counties offer treatment courts that help connect veterans with therapy and other services, rather than locking them up. The bill would expand the program statewide. It also includes funding for the operation of new veterans homes in Bemidji, Montevideo and Preston.
"We support veterans treatment courts in every state, especially when it comes to helping veterans who have experienced trauma of any kind when they were in the military," said Tim Engstrom of the Minnesota American Legion. He said access to the courts has been "kind of spotty."
Legislators continued work on other budget proposals Wednesday during the special session. The House passed a transportation budget bill increasing spending by $220 million over the next two years and authorizing hundreds of millions more in borrowing for road projects. The agreement includes money to equip the State Patrol and Capitol Security with body cameras.
The bill must pass the Senate before heading to Gov. Tim Walz for his signature. State officials have said the transportation budget must be passed quickly to avoid disrupting hundreds of road construction contracts for this season.