Bid to open Minnesota polling places weeks early advances at Capitol but has tall climb ahead



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ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Minnesota's first big run with no-excuse absentee voting has some lawmakers setting their sights on a more-expansive form of early balloting for future elections.

Legislation moving in the Minnesota Senate would establish an early voting window 15 days before an election when polling places would be open, including on Saturdays. The period would close three days prior to the scheduled election. But the bill faces a tougher course in the House, where a key Republican says his colleagues aren't inclined to pursue another significant voting change so soon.

Last year was the first statewide election where voters could request and cast an absentee ballot without a qualified excuse. In the end, there were 55 percent more absentee ballots cast in 2014 compared with the midterm election of 2010.

New Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat, said it's a sign people crave opportunities to vote at their convenience.

"Voting is not a one-shot deal anymore where it's one designated Tuesday, 13 hours a day and that's it," Simon said Thursday after testifying before a Senate subcommittee that endorsed the early-voting plan. "I think the difference now is we have the experience of no-excuses absentee, which was a huge success."

Citing calculations from a past proposal, Simon said election administrators can save $4 a ballot by allowing a true early voting window because they wouldn't have the paperwork, postage and processing considerations that go along with absentees. With absentee voting, he said the typical ballot requires nine steps. Early voting cuts that down because the ballot is fed immediately into a counting machine.

One drawback is that early votes are locked in while absentee voters have the potential to substitute their ballot within a certain time frame if they change their mind or if circumstances shift, such as the death of a candidate.

Thirty-three states now have an in-person early-voting system, but that includes Minnesota by virtue of no-excuse absentee balloting.

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, said the early voting proposal is a top priority and is likely to be part of the election law bill she'll assemble later this session.

"Minnesotans already think we have early voting, the problem is it's costing more money to administer and it's actually less secure in terms of ensuring Minnesotans' ballots are counted," she said.

Republican Rep. Tim Sanders, the chairman of the House elections panel, said it's a big shift on top of the one just made for absentee voting.

"That still feels really new to a lot of folks and a lot of Minnesotans so I really don't know if there's a tremendous appetite to go past that," Sanders said. "Right now my caucus is going to have a tough time getting to that point."

Simon and Sanders agree on one thing: If the change is going to be made in time for the next election in 2016, a bill would have to pass this year to give election administrators adequate time to adjust.

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