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Minnesota passes sweeping election reforms

Enabled by a trifecta in state government, the Democratic Farmer Labor party achieved its longtime goal of enacting automatic voter registration, along with a handful of campaign finance and other reforms.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Minnesota’s governor signed a number of changes to the state’s election rules into law Friday, including provisions for automatic voter registration and a crackdown on the spread of misinformation intended to stop people from voting. 

The law is the largest expansion of the state’s electorate since it adopted same-day registration in 1974. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, it could lead to hundreds of thousands of more voters being added to the state’s voter rolls. 

Automatic registration has for decades been a major priority of Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor party, which gained a narrow majority in the Minnesota Senate last year to secure a trifecta in the state’s government. Among those celebrating the bill’s signing were Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon and his predecessor Joan Growe, a Democrat who advocated for the policy change during her lengthy late-20th century tenure. 

In remarks at the signing, Simon pointed to Minnesota’s history of high voter turnout as evidence that “Minnesotans value voting. Period. That is a fact. And that shows up in the laws that we pass and the reforms that we embrace.” 

Automatic registration, which places Minnesota in a group of 20 states that automatically register voters, is just one of five major election reforms Walz signed into law Wednesday. Also in that package are a provision allowing 16 and 17-year-old Minnesotans to pre-register to vote, making it easier to ensure they are ready to vote upon turning 18, and one allowing by-mail voters to ask that they be sent an absentee ballot every election cycle. 

More controversially, the bills would create new disclosure requirements for would-be election advertisers and pamphleteers, closing loopholes that allow them to avoid reporting their political activities if they don’t expressly advocate for or against a candidate or ballot question using certain words, and bar “foreign-influenced” corporations and nonprofits from spending money to influence elections. 

Democrats, including the law’s Minnesota House sponsor and voting-rights lawyer Emma Greenman from Minneapolis, have argued that this is comparable to federal rules and one of the few options still available to the state to regulate campaign contributions after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. Republicans, meanwhile, have expressed skepticism that it clears that bar. 

The law would also make it a gross misdemeanor to knowingly spread misinformation with the intent of preventing people from voting. The prohibition specifically, but not exclusively, calls out misinformation on the time, place or manner of holding an election, eligibility to vote and threats to voters’ physical safety. 

Republicans chafed against the law’s passage, with some arguing that the contribution restrictions should be expanded to ban political contributions from unions and other traditionally Democratic donors.

“I would love to get rid of all the dark money, because most of it benefits someone other [than] my party,” Senator Mark Koran, a Republican from North Branch, was quoted as saying in the Star Tribune in February. Koran, apparently paying reference to Democrats’ substantial fundraising advantage in Minnesota in recent years, continued: “We would love to have confidence that whatever we did would actually do that.” 

Representative Paul Torkelson, a Republican from Hanska, put it more bluntly when the bill passed the house 70–57 in mid-April. “The Protect Democracy Act feels a little more like ‘let’s protect Democratic victories’ Act,” he said. 

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