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Right To Vote: In Minnesota, Lawmakers On Both Sides Seek Changes To Voting Process

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

2020 saw the increase in rules promoting voter access and convenience, in part because of the pandemic. And in 2021, there's a movement fueled by former President Trump's legally dismissed claims that the election was stolen to dial those voting rules back...

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Some state legislators want to make it harder for you to vote. And if you vote, they want to be able to tell you your vote doesn't count for any reason they make up.

CORNISH: ...And, according to President Biden, do much, much more than that.

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BIDEN: This year alone, 17 states have enacted - not just proposed but enacted - 28 new laws to make it harder for Americans to vote.

CORNISH: In places like Minnesota, where people already voted down a voter ID program in 2012, Republican lawmakers are trying to bring back that idea and many others into the debate.

MARY KIFFMEYER: When it comes to casting a ballot, you should be sure that a voter is who they say they are, that you make it easy to vote but hard to cheat - very simple concept.

CORNISH: Now, this is Mary Kiffmeyer, one of the backers of the bill, a former Minnesota secretary of state and a leading voice in the Republican-controlled state Senate. She doesn't think the 86 election cases Donald Trump lost in courts around the country are reflective of anything. She's focusing on the ones that lost on technicalities. Meanwhile, in the Democratic-controlled Minnesota House, freshman lawmaker Emma Greenman spent her first year trying to beat back bills Kiffmeyer supports...

EMMA GREENMAN: I think it is both targeting a set of voters, and I think it is also politically motivated. Both of those things are true.

CORNISH: ...And proposing new, more expansive bills of her own using her experience as a voting rights attorney. We'll hear more from Representative Greenman in a moment. But first, Senator Kiffmeyer explains why she and her fellow Republicans are focused on bills they say will help with voter security.

KIFFMEYER: The issue in front of us is, were the ballots cast with integrity? Were they given the right amount of access? Were they accurate in how they counted them? And was their privacy respected? So those are four fundamental principles of any election laws. And to ask the question is not being spurious or anything else. It is simply saying the voters deserve an answer to those questions. And the mere fact of asking the question is being challenged. And when it's being challenged, you wonder why they're keeping things secret.

CORNISH: In October of 2020, you had a U.S. district court judge say, look; in Minnesota, the voter fraud - we've seen two cases out of 45 million ballots cast since 1979. So in a way, that's someone trying to answer the question you're putting forward. How do you hear that? Like, how do you hear those numbers? How do you hear those responses?

KIFFMEYER: Well, again, in Minnesota, you have to prove intent. So it's only a stupid criminal that actually gets convicted because they were dumb enough to say, yes, I intended to commit voter fraud. Anybody else who said, gee, I didn't know, the case is usually dropped. There's nothing happening. And so to only judge the merits of fraud on those that are convicted is not a true measure of what fraud may be happening, and that is a material fact. And the U.S. Supreme Court said in years past in regards to voter ID law, in Indiana, it is a matter of historical fact that voter fraud does occur, and it is correct for the system to protect the other voters from cases of fraud.

CORNISH: This week, President Biden was speaking about voting laws.

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BIDEN: Twenty-first century Jim Crow assault is real. It's unrelenting, and we're going to challenge it vigorously.

CORNISH: Because he's talking about Republican bills in state legislatures, can you respond to what you're hearing there?

KIFFMEYER: Well, to me, when I have read the reports of the different bills that have been passed and signed into law, I don't see what President Biden sees. I don't see that. It's like they're using a partisan reason. If a Republican passed it or a Republican legislature passed it, it must be bad. So they don't go to the merits of the bill or look at whether it expands things. They just say, it's Republican. It's got to be bad. We got to be against it because they're Republican - got to be bad. I noticed he called out how many bills were offered by Republicans but not how many were offered by Democrats. In the state of Minnesota, lots of them were passed by Democrats, although in one case, they loved all of the election laws that they won. But to say, oh, it's a Republican bill; it must be bad - boy, what a partisan thing to say.

CORNISH: It's interesting. He's not just saying it's bad; he's calling it a 21st century Jim Crow assault.

KIFFMEYER: (Laughter) Well, that's hyperbole at its best.

CORNISH: How do you think your constituents are hearing that?

KIFFMEYER: In my conversations with them, people of color, over ID - is that as long as you have equal treatment of the voters, they're fine with the voter ID. What's the problem? I mean, the issue is here, do you have equal treatment of voters? And matter of fact, if you go so far as giving a free one and helping them with the support documents and all of that, they don't see that as a problem.

CORNISH: Finally, we're speaking to State Representative Greenman, who obviously has been putting forth a lot of legislation as well. And she said the way to instill people's confidence in our elections is to respect voters and tell the truth that this was a safe and secure election. Do you agree with that? How do you feel about that statement?

KIFFMEYER: It's a very general statement, and it is a statement that on occasion causes people to ask the question, how do you know that it was safe and secure - just by pronouncing it so on your word? Do you have the proof? Will you also allow others who have questions about it to ask that question without being accused of malicious attitudes? What is the harm in saying, let's prove it? So when you do a recount, you can say, here's all the ballots. Democrats and Republicans can all look at those ballots. They can count, recount them together. And when things are done, it's a very open, transparent process. So other people say, could we open it up? Could we have more transparency so that all of us could enjoy the confidence that Representative Greenman has about it being safe and secure? What's wrong with that? What's wrong with that kind of approach?

CORNISH: State Senator Mary Kiffmeyer.

Now we put her question to Minnesota Democrat and State Representative Emma Greenman, that question of whether if she's so confident elections are safe and secure, what's wrong with legislation that might assure some people with concerns?

GREENMAN: I think that when we talk about the people-have-concerns refrain - you will not hear me quote Senator Romney much, but I will say that what he said in response to that was the best way to reassure people is to tell them the truth, which is, we in Minnesota actually have a really strong elections administration, a nonpartisan elections administration administered by local elections authorities, 30,000 of our friends and neighbors. And so I think that the concern I have about the disinformation and airing it as concerns is it actually isn't based in fact, and it's making people target election judges and elections officials. And so we've heard concerns from local election authorities saying, we've seen a rise of intimidation and a rise of fear.

CORNISH: How do you think about the issue of people who, for whatever reason, for whatever information they've taken in, do have concerns about the election? Do you think any of them would be appeased by changes in the law - meaning, are there any provisions that tighten rules around voting that you'd back?

GREENMAN: So, again, I reject the assumption that what really - that where those concerns are really coming from is an administrative fix that we can have. I think if you don't believe that the 2020 election was free and fair and you're not listening to the Democrats and the Republicans and the experts and the local elections administrators who have said that, then we're not having a conversation about policy.

CORNISH: When you heard the comments from President Biden this week essentially accusing Republican lawmakers of bringing back a Jim Crow-era approach to voting politics, what was your response to that?

GREENMAN: You know, I was in Georgia in 2018 and saw the death by a thousand cuts of how much harder it was to vote in some counties that were predominantly African American. I saw - in 2016, I was in Arizona, and I saw the targeting of Latinx voters, and I saw the policy response, some of which ended up in the Supreme Court. And in Minnesota, I see it. And so I think that President Biden is speaking to a truth that is not new in 2020 that we've seen, but I think that this acceleration of what he called election subversion or really going after not just voters and limiting their access and targeting certain types of voters but also the count itself and really politicizing and injecting an interference - that is new. And we're seeing that, and we saw that in response to 2020.

CORNISH: When you see the action that Texas lawmakers felt they had to take, leaving the Capitol so that they could pause or delay or halt the laws that were coming down the line - are those stunts? Are those an escalation? How do you see those?

GREENMAN: I see what my counterparts in Texas did in the House was using the power they had to stand up to voters. I don't think it was a stunt at all. I actually think that I now, being in the Legislature, know how big of a deal and how serious they took it.

CORNISH: But since you have a divided Legislature, this isn't a situation where you guys can flee the scene if things aren't working out. I mean, you've got to compromise, right? And you've already had to do so on things like voting drop boxes.

GREENMAN: I think that voting drop box is a good example. But what our argument is - and we have the power of persuasion with Minnesotans, which is we should be doing those common-sense policies that strengthen the right to vote in Minnesota, strengthen the rights for voters. It's not bipartisan; it is nonpartisan. We should be listening to our local lawmakers. And so that is the work.

CORNISH: That was Minnesota State Representative Emma Greenman. And earlier, you heard State Senator Mary Kiffmeyer. Tomorrow we'll hear from two historians who weigh in on how these laws could impact the future of democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEACH HOUSE SONG, "BLACK CAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.