Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie launched an online voter registration system last month with little fanfare, but now the state’s legislative auditor is underscoring lawmakers’ questions about whether he had any authority to do so.

Ritchie created the system without explicit permission from the Legislature. A nonpartisan analysis, which Legislative Auditor James Nobles highlighted on Thursday, said the secretary of state could have followed the lead of top election officials in other states and asked for lawmakers’ approval before creating the online system.

“We wouldn’t have the controversy if he had,” Nobles said.

The wrangling over the online registration system is the latest clash between the DFL secretary of state and the GOP. Last year, Republican lawmakers questioned whether Ritchie used his office to campaign against the amendment to require a photo ID for voting. In another incident, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided Ritchie overstepped his bounds when he tried to write new titles for constitutional amendments.

Ritchie has said his office drew the authority to create the online registration system from a 2000 law that requires state acceptance of electronic signatures as the equivalent of scribbles on paper.

“I wasn’t in office, I wasn’t around. But that’s what the Legislature decided,” Ritchie said this week.

The new online system follows the same registration requirements as have long been used with paper registration; it just makes the forms available online, his office said.

Further, Ritchie said, “prior to my becoming secretary of state we began moving voter registrations around electronically, so this has been going on for quite awhile.”

But his defense has not squelched critics.

“It is at best unclear and at worst he doesn’t have the authority,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Thursday.

Both Daudt and Nobles said that even if Ritchie has the authority to create the system, he would have been well served by getting a full legislative vetting of the plans.

Republican lawmakers also are questioning the new system’s security measures. Daudt, Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, and the Republican leads on election issues, Sen. Scott Newman of Hutchinson and Rep. Tim Sanders of Blaine, said in a recent letter that given the recent data leaks in state government, “it is more important than ever to make sure our private information is protected.”

Nobles said he shares those concerns.

His office has already completed an audit of the state’s driver’s license data that found data is commonly accessed by law enforcement officials who have no legal reason to be digging into the information. The office also plans to examine MNsure, the new health care insurance exchange, to check whether Minnesotans’ confidential health information is properly protected.

Now, the online registration system will be added to the list.

“Given the high visibility and controversy around this one, I’ll try to get over there next year,” Nobles said.

Ritchie said the new registration system is working well.

“This tool is saving costs, minimizing inaccurate records and reflects the integrity of the state’s strong voting system,” Ritchie said in a statement.

The office said that since it was launched at MnVotes.org two weeks ago, nearly 900 people have used it. Nearly 500 of those used it to update their existing registrations. So far, 110 new voters have registered through the website.


Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @RachelSB