House Dems push for pop-up style polling places for absentee voting on campuses

County auditors voiced concerns over the bill's language making it mandatory upon a college's request.

Rep. Kristi Pursell, DFL-Northfield, sponsors HF3447, a proposal she told her colleagues in a House Elections Committee hearing on Thursday would “remove proven barriers to participation” in the voting process. (Minnesota House Info/YouTube)

bill that would mandate counties to provide pop-up style absentee voting locations on college and university campuses that ask for it is headed to a floor vote in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Rep. Kristi Pursell, DFL-Northfield, sponsors HF3447, a proposal she told her colleagues in a House Elections Committee hearing on Thursday would “remove proven barriers to participation” in the voting process for college students.

Despite the fact that Minnesota features a “no excuses needed” absentee and mail-in voting period of 46 days before the election, Pursell emphasized the obstacles that young, sometimes first-time eligible voters encounter if they attend college.

“Given that young adults are least likely to own a car, and many 18- and 19-year-olds do not even have a driver’s license, it can be very difficult for them to reach early voting and Election Day voting sites,” Pursell said as she explained the parameters of the legislation, which is being backed by Secretary of State Steve Simon.

The House Elections Committee voted to place the bill on the general register on a party-line voice vote. The bill has no companion in the Senate. No Republicans in the hearing expressed support for the bill, which one member said amounts to a fiscally irresponsible “unfunded mandate” for counties.

“This is going to increase costs (for counties),” said Rep. Ben Davis, R-Merrifield. “Students already have a month and a half to vote. They already have the right to vote. I think this is very fiscally irresponsible for us once again as the state wasting taxpayers’ money.”

The language of the bill adds a provision to existing election law that would, upon the request of any post-secondary institution, mandate county election officials to “establish an additional polling place for at least one day on the institution’s campus at a location that is agreed upon by the institution and the county auditor and that is accessible to the public.”

That drew criticism from the Minnesota Association of County Officers, which submitted written testimony on the proposal.

“We are concerned with the bill’s use of prescriptive language mandating county auditors to establish a polling place rather than current permissive language authorizing county auditors to designate absentee and early voting polling places prior to election day,” the organization wrote. MACO represents the voice of county recorders, auditors and treasurers in all 87 counties. Those officers are tasked with administering elections.

Students who represent the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State University system testified in support of the bill.

“Minnesota students have led the nation in student voter turnout over the last three elections,” said Karina Villeda, 25, a student at the University of Minnesota, with LEADMN. “However, disparities persist, stemming to unequal access to information, avenues for engagement, particularly across racial and ethnic lines, education backgrounds, geographical region and age groups.”

Pursell said the bill in its current form would limit its reach to universities and college campuses with more than 1,500 enrolled students.

Pursell said she derived the threshold number because it would mean both private colleges in her House District 58A, College of St. Olaf and Carleton College, would qualify for a temporary absentee polling location on their respective campuses.

Rep. Pam Altendorf, R-Red Wing, said any enrollment floor could be perceived as a politically “biased decision because smaller schools maybe tend to be more conservative.”

“That is concern to the public that we would be picking and choosing who we are driving to the polls to vote,” Altendorf said.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said his district includes a college with an enrollment of about 800, but he said he opposes the bill in its entirety.

“A temporary polling place on a post-secondary institution’s campus may be part of the plan for an effective and efficient election, however it is already authorized under current law and should not become a mandate if requested by the institution,” Torkelson said.

Rep. Kristin Bahner, DFL-Maple Grove, pointed out that the legislature approved an elections technology and voting operations fund to aid local governments for activities like a temporary polling location for absentee voting.

“I don’t think (this proposal) is a waste of taxpayer dollars to make sure folks have access to participate in what is probably their most critical role as a citizen,” Bahner said. “I think one of the roles of government is it’s important we meet people where they are and this bill does that.”


Hank Long

Hank Long is a journalism and communications professional whose writing career includes coverage of the Minnesota legislature, city and county governments and the commercial real estate industry. Hank received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, and his law degree at the University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota native lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and four children. His dream is to be around when the Vikings win the Super Bowl.