Duluth lawmaker advocates bill to register more voters

Now in her third term, Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, has tried for years to enact legislation that could place more registered voters on the rolls in Minnesota. But in years past, her proposals never even received a committee hearing, repeat...

A voter casts her ballot in the 2018 general election in Duluth. Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, is introducing a bill that could put more registered voters on Minnesota's rolls. file / News Tribune
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Now in her third term, Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, has tried for years to enact legislation that could place more registered voters on the rolls in Minnesota. But in years past, her proposals never even received a committee hearing, repeatedly stalling out under Republican House leadership.

That is very likely to change this legislative session.

With Democrats now in control of the House, Schultz expressed confidence a bill she is bringing forward will be able to win bipartisan support this time around.

The Minnesota Secretary of State's Office estimates that a little less than 87 percent of state residents who are eligible to vote are registered. So, more than one in 10 Minnesotans who are eligible to vote aren't registered to do so.

Currently, eligible Minnesotans who apply for a driver's license, a state identification card or a behind-the-wheel learner's permit can opt in and simultaneously register to vote. Schultz's bill would shift to a new system that would automatically register voters - unless they choose to opt out.


Schultz, an associate professor of economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said studies showed there was a better way.

"From behavioral economics, we know it's always better for participation to automatically opt in," she said.

If Schultz's bill is approved, unless someone applying for a license or ID indicates a desire to be excluded, the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office would automatically review the would-be voter's background to determine if he or she qualifies on all fronts - being 18 years of age or older, a U.S. citizen and a state resident.

The names of verified registered voters then would be forwarded to their respective counties of residence.

But critics remain, including Assistant Minority Leader Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia. Although Nash did not return a call from the News Tribune on Friday, he told the Star Tribune he had "grave concerns" automatic voter registration could open the door to fraud. He also told a Stateline reporter he was worried undocumented immigrants could "game the system" if the bill passed

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said he respectfully disagrees with Nash that automatic voter registration could somehow weaken controls.

To the contrary, he said: "It strengthens the security and the accuracy of the system."

Simon stressed that voter registration applications would not be approved in a rubber-stamp fashion.


"In some ways, there's less here than meets the eye. You hear a phrase like 'automatic voter registration,' and it sounds like some sweeping reform or change... But this is just a tweak of what we have now in state law," he said.

"All the screening, the filtering, the checking that our office does and that the counties do through all the databases to see if the person really is eligible would remain the same," Simon said.

The Minnesota League of Women Voters supports automatic voter registration, too.

"We all care about election integrity. We all want our electoral system to reflect what eligible voters who have participated in the election want. So, I think we can agree with Rep. Nash there," said Nick Harper, the League's civic engagement director.

"But Rep. Nash's concerns would be about voter impersonation, and there is no evidence that that is a problem anywhere in Minnesota. So, I agree that we should be concerned about our election integrity, but there's no evidence that that would be a problem."

Simon said that by registering more voters in advance, there would be fewer people trying do so at the polls on the day of elections. In the most recent midterm elections, about 130,000 people registered to vote, using a Minnesota driver's license or a state ID on the very day they showed up to cast a ballot. He expects automatic registration will make for considerably shorter lines at the polls.

"You'll have so many more people in the system earlier that you'll be able to do a lot more quality control over who's on the voter rolls," Simon said.

Already, 15 states and the District of Columbia have adopted automatic voter registration systems, and Nash said it has not typically been an issue that breaks along party lines. Yet he acknowledged Minnesota Republican lawmakers have demonstrated little support thus far.


"But I can tell you that in other states it has been a bipartisan bill. In Illinois, it passed unanimously through the Legislature, and it was signed by a Republican governor," Nash said, noting that similar legislation also was approved by West Virginia and Alaska, both states dominated by Republican majorities.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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