Update: On Friday, May 5, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed the Democracy for the People Act into law. The introduced version of the bill included a provision to restore voting rights to people on felony probation or parole which was removed after the state enacted a separate rights restoration law in March.
In 2022, Democrats did not lose control of a single state legislative chamber, a huge feat in a midterm election year for the party occupying the White House. In addition, Democrats flipped legislative chambers in Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. Early signs indicate that Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party is particularly energized and ready to use its new trifecta control to improve voting access in the North Star State.
On the two year anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, DFL lawmakers announced the formation of a legislative caucus focused on “defending democracy.” The new caucus has already introduced a major package of pro-voting reforms, House File 3 and Senate File 3, the Democracy for the People Act, a bill title that’s reminiscent of federal legislation that moved through Congress in 2021, though ultimately stalled.
“We have to respond to what’s happened in the last few years,” Rep. Emma Greenman (DFL), a voting rights lawyer and co-chair of the new Inclusive Democracy Caucus, told Democracy Docket. “We should be thinking about strengthening the freedom to vote and putting Minnesotans at the center of our democracy.” Greenman noted that Minnesota has a strong voting system and was a leader in voting reform several decades ago. “Now, we’re in a place where we’re in the middle of the pack,” she concluded. In today’s piece, we break down the Democracy for the People Act and how it will re-establish Minnesota’s position as a leader on voting rights.
What does the Democracy for the People Act do?
The bill expands voter registration opportunities.
The Democracy for the People Act allows 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote. “Urging young people to build a relationship with the political process as early as possible helps make voting a lifelong habit,” Rep. Larry Kraft (DFL) explained at a public hearing on this pre-registration provision, which is also its own standalone bill. “With young people, it’s their future that we often debate and we’re all better when they participate more in it.” At the same House committee hearing, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon (D) spoke in favor of the policy, noting how studies showed that pre-registration and voting in the first election after one is eligible makes a notable difference in future turnout.
To reach more prospective voters, the bill also establishes automatic voter registration. The National Voter Registration Act requires that states offer opt-in voter registration opportunities when interacting with departments of motor vehicles. However, only 22 states and Washington D.C. offer automatic voter registration, where designated agencies register all voters except if they opt out; this bill adds Minnesota to that list. New voters would be automatically registered when interacting with the Department of Public Safety (where Minnesotans apply for driver’s licenses), Department of Human Services (where Minnesotans apply for MinnesotaCare, the state’s health care program for low income individuals) and other participating state agencies.
The bill improves access to voting rights for those with past felony convictions.
The Democracy for the People Act restores the right to vote for individuals who are no longer incarcerated for a felony conviction. Currently, Minnesota restores voting rights to those convicted of felonies after they have completed their sentences, which almost always includes probation or parole. According to bill sponsor Rep. Cedrick Frazier (DFL), there are over 50,000 Minnesotans throughout the state that are on probation or parole, all of whom are stripped of the right to vote.
“Restoring voting rights to those convicted of a felony crime but no longer incarcerated is one of the ways to help facilitate reintegration into our communities by giving these individuals their voices back to participate in the electoral process,” Frazier noted at a public hearing. Members of the public also voiced their support for this policy: “I’m a spouse, a husband, a proud father of a 14-year-old daughter. And like some of you, I’m a businessman, a homeowner…I am a leader in my community,” a formerly incarcerated Minnesotan explained. “But unlike you I don’t have a voice. Unlike you, I’ve been made to feel like a second class American, because I can’t vote.”
Like several of those who spoke before the Minnesota House Elections Committee, around 75% of disenfranchised individuals nationwide are out of prison and living among their communities. This bill would move Minnesota’s policy in line with 22 other states, where people convicted of felonies regain voting rights immediately after incarceration. The bill further outlines the responsibility of the secretary of state to procure “accurate and complete information” on rights restoration changes and the expectation for correctional facility officials to provide robust notice of voting rights as part of the re-entry process following incarceration.
The bill would create a public campaign funding program via “Democracy Dollars.”
Minnesota already refunds registered voters up to $50 for campaign contributions. Lawmakers are looking to alter that pre-existing campaign fund to incentivize more voters to take advantage of it. The Democracy for the People Act creates a system where each registered voter would be issued two “Democracy Dollars coupons” with a $25 value. The “Democracy Dollars” can be then donated to a political party or campaign committee. The bill emphasizes that “Democracy Dollar coupons have no cash value and are not assets, income, or the property of the holder to which a coupon is issued.”
The city of Seattle became the first jurisdiction to adopt a similar process in 2015. New York City enacted a small-dollar matching funds program — a different model with the shared goal of powering smaller donations — a few years later. In a political environment dominated by wealthy donors and special interests, public financing systems are growing in popularity among pro-democracy and anti-corruption groups. The Minnesota bill further adds a ban on “foreign-influenced corporations” from taking part in campaign funding. “When I think about the money in politics piece,” Greenman explained, “People need to know that it is their vote, it is their voice, it is what they’re telling us on the campaign trail and in the halls of the Capitol that is driving our ability to make change.”
The bill tackles more important democracy issues.
The bill takes a few more pro-voting steps, including:
- Permitting voters to opt-in to a permanent absentee voter list. Previously, Minnesota’s permanent absentee voter status resulted in an absentee ballot application sent each election; this removes an unnecessary step for voters interested in absentee voting as they will simply be sent the ballot instead.
- Requiring sample ballots and voting instructions in multiple languages, as well as bilingual election workers in areas with a significant number of residents who primarily speak a language other than English.
- Strengthening the penalties for voter intimidation and deception.
Notably, a key reform is missing: Minnesota is one of a few states that permits any voter to vote by mail but requires a witness signature to do so. The witness can be a notary or any other registered Minnesota voter. Such requirements can be a major barrier to voting yet the latest pro-voting bill does not address that restriction. Greenman noted that lawmakers are continuing conversations about the witness requirement and other measures not included in the Democracy for the People Act: “It will probably end up in a different package of bills, whether it’s an administrative bill or another policy bill.”
What’s next in its path to passage?
Two weeks ago, the Minnesota House Elections Finance and Policy Committee held a public hearing on two subsections of this omnibus bill (also filed in their own respective bills): pre-registering to vote for 16- and 17-year-olds and rights restoration after incarceration. Both advanced out of the committee. The omnibus Democracy for the People Act should have committee hearings within the next few weeks. Then, it will have to make its way through both chambers of the Legislature before arriving at the desk of Gov. Tim Walz (D).
“One of the reasons we put this bill together the way we did is, I don’t think any one policy is a silver bullet to getting us to the inclusive, multiracial, multigenerational, regionally-diverse democracy that we’re trying to build,” Greenman emphasized. “We’re not going to nibble around the margins…It really is about this much more comprehensive approach to strengthening the freedom to vote, people’s belief in the system and their belief in democracy.”