Minnesota Governor Signs Pro-Voting Package

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed an omnibus bill into law Friday with multiple provisions that will benefit voters, including one that establishes a Minnesota Voting Rights Act.

“Democracy thrives when everyone’s voice is heard. Today, we’re ensuring a strong democracy by prioritizing accessibility and voter protections,” Walz said in a Friday release. “With this bill we are breaking barriers that stand in the way of voting, protecting fair democratic processes, and paving the way for Minnesota to continue to lead the nation in voter turnout.”

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) addresses the audience at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota (Lorie Shaull/Wikimedia Commons).

The state’s new Voting Rights Act will prohibit voter suppression and vote dilution, so that no one is allowed to deny someone else the right to vote or make it so that their vote does not have the same weight as another person’s.

Specifically, someone can claim this act has been violated if someone else’s action “results in a disparate burden” on a minority group and the burden is “related to social and historical conditions affecting members of the protected class.”

The law also states that voters do not have to prove that someone acted with a discriminatory intent when passing a law or policy or committing an action to find that it’s a violation of the Minnesota Voting Rights Act.

The attorney general, a county attorney or any individual or entity affected by a violation of this act can file an action in the district court for the county where the potential violation occurred. 

This is crucial for Minnesota voters because Republicans in courts across the country are arguing that private parties cannot sue under the federal Voting Rights Act. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Minnesota, is the first federal appeals court to bar private litigants from suing under the Voting Rights Act, making a state-level version the only avenue for Minnesotans to challenge discriminatory voting rules and maps in court.

“As Black voters across America face the greatest assault on voting rights since Jim Crow, Minnesota is moving forward, not back, by passing the Minnesota Voting Rights Act,” said Janai Nelson, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), in a statement last week.

The law also ends prison gerrymandering, which means that Minnesota will alter its census counting so that incarcerated individuals will be counted at their last address, and not where they are currently incarcerated. This will allow “for more accurate Census counting, fairer districts and better representation,” Common Cause Minnesota, a nonpartisan grassroots organization, said in a statement about the law.

The legislation will make it easier for college students to vote, reimbursing cities and counties that create polling locations on college campuses. It also requires many universities to provide voter registration forms to students during the fall and spring of each year.

To combat the threat that artificial intelligence poses to the security of elections, a section of this law details the consequences for people using a deep fake to influence the election. Deep fakes are images, video and audio often generated by artificial intelligence technologies that reflect an event that never actually happened, but they look and sound realistic.

For example, there was a robo call in New Hampshire that played a false rendering of President Joe Biden’s voice telling people not to vote in the state’s Democratic primaries in January.

Repeat offenders could face a maximum of five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $100,000 and those who commit this violation intending to cause violence or bodily harm could be sentenced to almost a year in prison and/or have to pay a fine of up to $30,000. In any other cases, offenders could face up to 90 days in prison and/or have to pay a fine of up to $1,000.

On the federal level, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is spearheading three different bills to combat the threat of AI in elections.

The law also requires the secretary of state to determine if anyone listed on the Social Security Death Index or reported deceased in state records is registered to vote, and if they are registered, they need to send the names to county auditors to update the voter registration lists accordingly. 

The Public Interest Legal Fund (PILF) filed a lawsuit in Minnesota last month requesting access to its voter rolls, claiming that its voter registration lists may not be updated and maintained properly.

Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, said in a statement that “ending prison gerrymandering, establishing a Minnesota Voting Rights Act, and expanding voting rights are great steps to improving democracy, but we cannot stop at these measures.”

She laid out ways that legislators and the governor can take the provisions in this law even further, including adding a provision about preclearance in the state.

Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, certain jurisdictions, including states, counties and cities, with histories of discriminatory voting practices had to receive pre approval from the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal district court before changing voting laws. In 2013, 15 states — most of which were located in the South — were subjected to preclearance in some capacity. 

However, a 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby v. Holder gutted this provision from the Voting Rights Act.

Belladonna-Carrera also said that Minnesota needs to “expand campus polling places to community colleges where students of color are likely to make up the majority of the student population, and we need full grassroots redistricting reform with an independent commission.”

Read the legislation here.