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Kent Kaiser: Support 'no-excuse' absentee voting legislation

Currently, Minnesota law allows absentee voting supposedly only for people who claim one of the following reasons for needing an absentee ballot:

--Absence from their precinct on Election Day

--Illness or disability

--Service as an election judge in another precinct on Election Day

--Religious discipline or religious holiday or observance

--Eligible emergency declared by the governor or quarantine declared by the federal or state government

The law to require an excuse to obtain an absentee ballot is unenforceable and, therefore, unenforced. No one actually checks to see whether voters meet these eligibility criteria — it would be virtually impossible. Nevertheless, conscientious citizens have not necessarily recognized this fact, and, consequently, the current law probably has deterred some people from voting.

Recently, State Rep. Steve Simon (DFL-St. Louis Park) introduced legislation that would remove the requirement to declare one of these excuses to obtain an absentee ballot. This legislation should be passed.

There are four pillars of a strong election system: Access, accuracy, privacy, and integrity. Rep. Simon’s bill would strengthen that first pillar whilst leaving the other pillars unharmed. Thus, Rep. Simon’s bill would be an excellent reform of our election system.

Such is not the case with some other election changes being suggested in the Legislature this year.

Many readers have probably heard talk of “early voting” proposals that would allow people for any reason to cast their votes in the weeks prior to Election Day and have their votes counted immediately. But readers should beware: Such schemes have major flaws compared to our current absentee voting system.

--For one, early voting systems do not allow voters to change their minds after casting their ballots like the current absentee voting system does. Many more voters change their minds than most people recognize — and not just for dramatic reasons such as a U.S. senate candidate dying in a plane crash a few days before an election, as happened in Minnesota in 2002. Much new information becomes available about candidates in the days just prior to Election Day, and voters should have the right to change their votes based on new information. An early voting system would not allow this: Voters in such systems are stripped of the right to change their votes, once their votes are cast, because their ballots have already been placed in the ballot box and counted, with no way track them back to the voters. Thus, an “early-voting” system would actually weaken the “access” pillar of a strong election system.

--Another clear weakness of early voting, if implemented in Minnesota, would be the after-the-fact discovery of some voters’ ineligibility. We already have this problem with our loose Election Day registration procedures (same-day voter registration with no ID requirement). Expanding the looseness to the weeks of voting prior to Election Day would not be an improvement. In our current absentee voting system, it is possible to verify voters’ eligibility before their ballots are counted until Election Day with all the other ballots. Thus, an “early-voting” system would also weaken the “integrity” pillar of a strong election system.

Consequently, a superior legislative reform would be simply to change the law to allow absentee voting without an excuse.

Many Minnesota voters already vote by “in-person” absentee ballot at a local election office, which is easier for many people than by-mail absentee voting and provides every bit of the ease of access that “early voting” does but also retains the integrity of our current system.

We often hear that people do not know about the “in-person” absentee ballot option or about the re-voting benefit that the current absentee ballot system provides to people who change their minds before Election Day. This simply suggests that state officials should do a better job at publicizing voters’ options—not that we should change and weaken the whole system.

One small tweak to our current absentee ballot system would increase the voters’ right to ballot access and preserve their right to election integrity and thus represents a significant reform to our election system — that is Rep. Simon’s bill, House File 193. Readers should call their legislators and the governor to ask them to support Rep. Simon’s bill.

Kent Kaiser, Ph.D., is a professor of communication at Northwestern College in Roseville, Minn., and a senior fellow at the Minneapolis-based think tank Center of the American Experiment.