You Keep Using That Word: Bipartisanship in Election Legislation


[Image courtesy of ericherboso]

[Vizzini has just cut the rope The Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing up]
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

That little snippet from The Princess Bride has been coming to mind a lot recently as I read stories from states trying to reach accord on “bipartisan” election legislation in the wake of the 2012 election.

In particular, two states with recent fireworks, Minnesota and Florida, have been working toward bills that would make changes to election laws. In both states, the question of “bipartisanship” has come up – and in both states, bipartisanship is creating problems.

In Minnesota, the new DFL majority is trying to expand voting options to include early voting and no-excuse absentee ballots. But finding consensus on a bill has been difficult, in part due to a requirement by the Governor that any legislation be “bipartisan”. Yesterday’s Star-Tribune had more details:

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has given Republicans virtual veto power over changes to Minnesota’s election laws, which could doom Democratic proposals to advance early voting.

Although Democrats control the Legislature and have offered support for early voting, the governor of their own party has pledged not to sign any election measure that lacks “broad bipartisan support.”

So far, Republicans have been cool to the idea of letting voters go to polling places before Election Day.

“Any changes in election laws need broad bipartisan support so, to be honest, I haven’t looked into the details of each of the proposals yet because I’m waiting to see if anything is going to move forward on that basis,” Dayton said this week.

“If it has that bipartisan support, that’s a pretty good indicator that it is good for Minnesota, good for election participation and protects the integrity, both of which are laudable goals,” he said, explaining the standard he has held since he took office …

Dayton’s stance follows that of his Republican predecessor Tim Pawlenty, who also demanded bipartisan support for election law changes.

“Whatever makes it easier for people to vote so that more people vote as long as the integrity of the system is protected, I would be supportive of,” Dayton said this week. “But, again, we will have to see what’s possible.”

To date, Dayton’s position has resulted in a stalemate on early voting, though there appears to be some consensus emerging on no-excuse absentees.

In the meantime, a Florida election bill which would expand early voting and shorten ballot summaries (two issues that many believe would alleviate the long lines that plagued the Sunshine State last fall) has run into partisan conflict in the state Senate after huge bipartisan majorities in the House. Sunshine State News has more:

The bipartisan consensus on overhauling Florida’s elections laws shattered Monday, as the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee passed the main reform proposal on a party-line vote after swatting down a series of amendments.

It was the first time any version of the measure (SB 600) has not received unanimous or near-unanimous support, and marked a striking change for a committee that had so far handled the issues before it on a largely bipartisan basis.

The 15 Democratic amendments — several of which were withdrawn, but many of which were defeated on party-line votes — helped spark the friction. Democrats had long signaled to the GOP majority that they considered the legislation inadequate.

Nonetheless, Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who chairs the committee, was visibly angered by the amendments. At one point, during a debate on how many ballot summaries for legislatively-sponsored constitutional amendments should face a 75-word limit, he underscored that similar legislation had passed the House with a single dissenting vote — from a Republican …

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said after the meeting that Democrats wanted their concerns about the legislation addressed.

“There were some really important amendments to the Democrats and we were hoping that we would get some concessions today,” she said.

When a reporter noted that every Democrat in the House supported the measure, she responded: “I don’t speak for them.”

Voting-rights organizations and House Democrats’ support for the legislation had always come with the caveat that they would like to see a more expansive bill. But Democrats on the Ethics and Elections Committee were the first to allow those concerns to prompt them to vote against the measure.

These struggles to enact legislation – and demonstrate “bipartisanship” while doing so – illustrate how elusive both goals can really be. What’s especially interesting is that both states are under single-party control (with both houses of the Legislature and the Governor), meaning that if they wanted to they could simply push through the changes. But in both states, at least for now, the desire for bipartisanship – and the search for consensus – continues. Time will tell if the minorities in both states ca be convinced that “bipartisanship” is a good enough reason to vote for a bill they do not fully support.

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