This morning at the Minnesota Judicial Center, attorneys for Norm Coleman and Al Franken will make their cases to the state Supreme Court for either opening more disputed absentee ballots cast last Nov. 4 in their Senate race or declaring the count complete.
Plenty of Minnesotans will follow today's oral arguments with considerable impatience and frustration. They'll wonder why several thousand of the last election's 290,000 absentee ballots landed in legal limbo. They'll ask whether a surer system could be devised to make absentee ballots less prone to administrative errors and legal second-guessing.
Several county elections officials on the receiving end of those questions answered them at a Humphrey Institute conference last week, with abundant frustration of their own. Yes, they said, we know how to improve absentee balloting to minimize this problem in the future. We worked persistently with both parties in the Legislature this year to get a reasonable remedy through the House and Senate. We want to move the processing of absentee ballots out of precincts and into county offices, to improve uniformity and relieve pressure on already busy election judges.
That change would be law now, were it not for Gov. Tim Pawlenty's May 22 veto, they said. It was one of three bills containing election-law changes sought by local elections administrators and approved by the Legislature. All three were stopped at the governor's desk.
Most troubling to the county officials was the claim in the Republican governor's veto message that the absentee ballot bill tilted in the DFL's direction. "Bills making changes to our election process should be bipartisan. Unfortunately, this bill fails that test," Pawlenty wrote.
"That was our bill," said Patricia O'Connor, Blue Earth County elections director. "We took out anything that was controversial."
Still, the bill failed to win GOP votes. The debate in the House made clear why: Republican legislators were holding out for the insertion of a new voting requirement much favored by their national party, and much opposed by Democrats and Libertarians. They want citizens to carry and show a government-issued photo ID card before being allowed to vote.
Pawlenty did not cite the photo ID issue in his veto message. But while he professed a desire for bipartisanship, his fellow Republicans held locally devised absentee ballot reforms hostage to a highly partisan proposal to add a new hurdle to voting.
Another of the bills Pawlenty vetoed would have allowed for automatic updates in voter registration addresses when drivers' license addresses change. It too got a unanimous cold shoulder from GOP legislators, so was faulted by Pawlenty as a one-party bill. Six days after the veto, several Republican legislators filed a lawsuit claiming inadequacies in voter registration record-keeping -- precisely what the vetoed bill would have improved.
These partisan "gotcha" games ill befit Minnesota's tradition of clean, fair and well-administered elections. Further, they show disregard for the local professionals whose high level of service was on convincing display during the U.S. Senate recount. They deserve lawmakers' respect, and their recommendations for a better state elections system deserve heed.