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Minnesota colleges and universities could ask county elections officials to set up on-campus polling places under a bill introduced by Democrats at the State Capitol.

Rep. Kristi Pursell, DFL-Northfield, said her bill is meant to make voting more accessible for college students who lack reliable transportation. Northfield is home to two of Minnesota's private colleges, Carleton and St. Olaf.

"For young adults, this might be their first election," Pursell said. "They typically have much less access to transportation and their time might be quite filled between work and classes."

Rep. Paul Torkelson of Hanska, the Republican lead on the House Elections Committee, said he's concerned the bill as written requires counties to pay for the polling locations. Counties are given the responsibility under state law to conduct elections, which includes setting locations for in-person voting on Election Day and sites for early voting that under state law starts 46 days before.

"We're just philosophically questioning the need for more mandates," Torkelson said.

Democrats and Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature and nationwide have clashed over questions of voter access, with Democrats moving to expand it and Republicans to keep it limited. Rep. Pam Altendorf, R-Red Wing, argued during a House Elections Committee meeting that the campus early-voting bill targets a left-leaning demographic because it applies only to schools that enroll more than 1,500 students.

Siya Shelar, a freshman at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Undergraduate Student Government (USG), said Republican students do exist on campus, and they also want to vote.

"There is no agenda here; truly as undergraduates in government our entire purpose is to support voting as a whole," Shelar said.

After high school, University of Minnesota student Karina Villeda said, she spent eight years working at different casinos. Working and caring for her daughter came before voting, she said.

"I was never swayed to vote, so I never voted," Villeda said.

Villeda took a work-study job with LeadMN when she started college, helping with voter registration. She learned how to be politically engaged and was urged to help other people do the same.

"There's a lot of people that come from marginalized communities like me, that don't understand the importance of voting," Villeda said. "If you allow students to see that other students are voting, then that would sway them to vote."

Villeda testified in support of the bill on Feb. 14 in front of the House Elections Committee. She said she understands why people choose not to vote, because she was once in their shoes.

University of St. Thomas student Andrew Brownell said voting isn't very convenient.

"Some people don't have a car to get to voting," Brownell said.

The proposal is also on the move in the Minnesota Senate, which like the House is controlled by Democrats. A Senate Higher Education Committee hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

Rep. Ben Davis, R-Merrifield, described the proposal as "fiscally irresponsible" during a House hearing. He argued that college students have 46 days to submit an absentee ballot, so it would not make sense for the state to use taxpayer dollars for early polling locations in addition to that.

Republicans in Minnesota and across the country widely opposed mail-in and absentee voting during elections in 2020 and 2022. Kim Crockett, the party's secretary of state nominee during the 2022 midterms, ran on a pledge to restrict absentee voting. Torkelson, for his part, said he's always advocated for Minnesotans voting, regardless of the method.

"I'm a vote, vote, vote kind of guy," Torkelson said.