Minnesota Hotdish Politics: Elections report embraces more online practices

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 1, 2014 - 5:31 PM

Joe Manksy, Ramsey County elections manager, says he thinks “the paper polling-place roster belongs” to a bygone era.

Photo: Star Tribune file,

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You give your name to a kindly neighbor, probably someone in her golden years, who looks through her thick glasses to find your name on her equally thick paper roster. A roster of names printed on dead trees — you must be voting!

Some of us find this ritual comforting, like a Norman Rockwell painting of Americans thoughtfully choosing their leaders. Others may wonder: Doesn’t this town know about the Internet?

“I say this with a smile on my face — it’s almost like we send the green eyeshades out there,” said Joe Mansky, Ramsey County’s elections manager, referring to a bygone era of office workers hiding under light-blocking visors. “I think that’s the era the paper polling-place roster belongs to.”

Take heart, Joe Mansky. A presidential commission headed by campaign lawyers for President Obama and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney appeared to actually listen to the state and local administrators who must enforce election laws.

Their report, released this month and promoted in Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, touches on two issues Minnesota legislators wrestled with in committee last week — online voting registration and replacing those paper rosters with up-to-date electronic versions.

Key recommendations of the Report of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (available at www.supportthevoter.gov):

• Voters should wait no longer than 30 minutes at the polls to cast ballots.

• Online registration, debated last week in a legislative committee, was given a ringing endorsement.

• Electronic rosters, or e-pollbooks, which were given a limited trial in Minnesota last year, were also endorsed as a more efficient way of checking voters in. A task force recommended last week that Minnesota expand trials of the system.

• States should share voting rolls with one other to ensure accuracy and guard against fraud. Minnesota is discussing joining one of the voluntary groups that shares such data.

• Early voting — various ways of casting ballots before Election Day — should be encouraged for convenience and to ease traffic at the polls. This election cycle, Minnesota is opening absentee voting to anyone, either by mail or in person, up to eight weeks before the election.

Minnesota’s DFL Secretary of State, Mark Ritchie, was criticized for instituting online registration last year without legislative approval. A lawsuit was filed by GOP legislators, and Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park — who heads the House Elections Committee and is a candidate to replace Ritchie — held a hearing last week on his bill to put online registration into state law. (It remains in effect on the secretary of state’s website, www.sos.state.mn.us.)

Nineteen states have fully implemented online registration. The commission found that the system reduces errors, saves local governments money and protects against “the potential or the appearance of vulnerability to fraud.”

“I think the commission heard from actual election administrators across the country,” said Ritchie, who is not seeking re-election this year. Online registration was presented not as an innovation but as a proven practice.

“Red states, blue states, almost everywhere — it feels like this has some momentum,” Ritchie said. “Pretty much all government services are moving online.”

Dan McGrath, the head of Minnesota Majority and chief backer of a photo ID constitutional amendment that failed in 2012, said that he has supported electronic pollbooks and that he continues to do so.

While his group is part of the registration lawsuit against Ritchie, he said he is “not completely opposed” to online registration. He has concerns about states adopting “shoddy online systems that are open to abuse by fraudsters.”

The debate over improving access vs. tightening security at the polls is not going away. But after the bitter photo ID battle in Minnesota, the push is on for consensus, not conflict.

The commission pointed out areas where this is at least possible. The rest is up to partisan politicians, who write the laws that guide that kindly election judge and her paper roster of names.

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