Regrettably, it still may be weeks or months before Minnesota sends a second member to the U.S. Senate. But it's not too soon to conclude from all that's come to light in the Norm Coleman-Al Franken contest that Minnesota needs simpler, less error-prone voting procedures.
Enter Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, the state's senior election administrator, with a raft of proposals for change. Last week, he forwarded several dozen ideas to the Legislature. They deserve serious consideration this year, before another election looms large on the calendar.
Ritchie's proposals are rich with detail, as befits the work of one who has mastered the intricacies of his field. More analysis -- and hopefully more ideas from a variety of sources -- will be needed before a full endorsement. But Ritchie is providing a valuable public service by starting the discussion on moving the state's election system:
•Toward early voting: Use of absentee ballots doubled in Minnesota between 2006 and 2008. That shows that many voters want the convenience of voting on their own schedules in the days before the election. Ritchie proposes dropping the need to claim absence from one's home precinct on Election Day. He would establish locations for early voting beginning 30 days before the election.
•Toward fewer errors in absentee balloting: About 12,000 absentee votes in the 2008 election weren't counted -- not yet, anyway. The Coleman election contest may open more. But that's too high a rejection rate, and augurs for simpler procedures for both casting and processing mail-in ballots. Ritchie proposes using a number such as a driver's license number, not a signature, to verify voter identity. And he would count absentee ballots centrally, in county or city offices. No more delivering ballots to precincts in a race against the 8 p.m. closing hour.
•Toward easier voter registration: Election Day registration has become so popular in Minnesota that it's causing long lines at the polls. A simpler system would automatically register anyone applying for a driver's license or state identification card, unless the applicant opts not to be registered. The onus would be on the secretary of state's office to make sure new registrants met legal eligibility requirements for voting. Ritchie favors that idea, which is also at the heart of a range of proposals advanced last week by a new Midwestern public engagement group, Heartland Democracy.
•Toward fewer recounts: Given the accuracy of the optical scanners Minnesota uses to tally votes, Ritchie argues that the state's margin-of-victory threshhold for an automatic recount should be lowered from 0.5 percent to 0.25 percent.
•Toward an earlier primary: There are many political reasons to move Minnesota's primary to a date earlier than the current second Tuesday in September. Ritchie adds this practical consideration: The current calendar does not afford enough time for a recount of a statewide primary election -- let alone a court contest.
Too often, election-related ideas languish at the Legislature during odd-numbered years, only to be deemed too disruptive to campaigns already in progress to be enacted in even-numbered ones. That should not be the fate of worthy proposals that emerge from the Coleman-Franken election drama.