Today marks opening day of Minnesota’s 2020 legislative session.
Once again, the sole remaining split-control legislature in America must come together—or at least to the same address—to see if they've learned how to get anything done. A wary populace will watch on, wondering if functional divided government exists anymore.
The night before the high-stakes drama, a small gumball machine full of brightly colored capsules was unveiled in the lobby of the Capitol Ridge Hotel, within spitting distance of the actual Capitol. This is the Law Machine, and it is the brainchild of the Theater of Public Policy’s Brandon Boat.
Each capsule contains a proposed Minnesota law on a tightly rolled scroll of paper. They’re not the sort you'll see debated down the street, but they are… compelling.
“Proposed,” one paper declares in bold letters. “To create an agreed upon pronunciation of New Prague. The spelling will remain the same, but it will be pronounced Worcestershire.”
Another declares that all state employees must include “xoxo” in their official signatures. Yet another says simply, “Right turns are hereby banned.”
“Do we think all of these laws could be passed during the session?” Boat asks. “No.”
Regardless, the Law Machine will stand at attention in the hotel for the duration of the session, and it costs only 50 cents to operate. Considering the staggering amount of money embedded in politics these days, that’s not bad.
On the surface, the Law Machine is an exercise in silliness, but that belies the sincere motives of Boat and co-creators Tane Danger and Anna Crace. For a lot of people, policy is intermingled with politics, and all the anger, frustration, and fear that comes with it. For others, the legislative process is too tangled and too rife with context, doublespeak, and legalese to follow.
The Law Machine is there to break the tension and invite participation. Anyone can have an opinion about whether turning right should be banned, and the ludicrous measures necessary to enforce such an edict. Anyone can debate the relative merits and appropriateness of “xoxo.”
Anyone, in fact, can think of a better law than anything found in the Law Machine.
“If you want to get involved, there are far more opportunities than you think,” Boat says. “It’s as simple as talking to your neighbor.”
In order to entice participants—and perhaps facilitate conversation—a third of the capsules in the machine include coupons for a free beer or rail drink at the hotel bar. And as long as they’re in the neighborhood, they might as well walk down the street and visit the real Capitol, too. Maybe bring a few questions or concerns to their representatives.
“Going and talking to your legislator can feel intimidating or scary,” Danger says. “But the truth is they’re way more scared of you than you are of them.”
The creators of the Law Machine do have fond hopes their beloved, law-ball-spitting son will be a success. They hope they’ll one day be able to refill it with more laws, witness legislators laughing over capsules after work, and perhaps install a suite of Law Machines in city government buildings across the state.
And of course, the fondest hope of all: making a difference.
“I do look forward to the day one of our laws is passed,” Crace says.