Tighten the screen on voter addresses in Minnesota

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 11, 2014 - 6:07 PM

System should have caught Minneapolis election issue sooner.

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House incumbent Phyllis Kahn spoke during a question-and-answer session with challenger Mohamud Noor at the DFL convention in April.

Photo: DAVID JOLES • Star Tribune,

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How hot is the DFL primary contest in Minneapolis House District 60B between state Rep. Phyllis Kahn and school board member Mohamud Noor? So hot that reports of voter registration irregularities in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood have become a talking point in a Republican’s statewide campaign.

The GOP-endorsed candidate for secretary of state, Dan Severson, told his fellow Republicans this week that the DFLers in that district “are giving this to us on a silver platter.” His “this” is an issue that should be considered to have been put to rest by Minnesota “no” voters in 2012 — whether to require would-be voters to prove their eligibility by presenting a government-issued photo ID card at the polls.

But the District 60B and photo ID dots don’t connect. Severson, who seeks to be this state’s top elections administrator, ought to know that not all possible mistakes and mischief would be remedied by flashing a photo ID card at an election judge.

The photo ID push by the nation’s Republicans is an attempt to prevent identity fraud at the polls. It offers no protection against false claims of residence of the sort that were discovered at 419 Cedar Av. S., a mailbox center in the heart of state’s largest Somali immigrant neighborhood. (Indeed, Hennepin County elections administrator Ginny Gelms reports that in recent days she’s seen driver’s licenses bearing the same address — where no one resides.)

But that does not mean that no procedural correction is in order in light of the 141 errant registrations that the Kahn campaign uncovered just as absentee voting began on June 27. To be sure, it is reassuring that an investigation by the Hennepin County attorney’s office found no sign of an orchestrated campaign by Noor or anyone else to register nonresidents to vote in the Cedar-Riverside precinct.

In Minnesota, mistaken votes cast in the wrong precinct or mistaken addresses on voter registration forms are not crimes. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said Friday that his office will continue to investigate voting in prior years to make sure none was done inappropriately. Registrations at 419 Cedar have been canceled, but the affected voters are free to re-register using their home addresses. Their votes are still welcome in this election.

It’s also good to know that only two voters registered at 419 Cedar have attempted to cast absentee ballots, and both were blocked from doing so.

Nevertheless, it’s troubling that it took the intensity of the hard-fought Kahn-Noor contest and the eagle eyes of a seasoned election law attorney, Brian Rice, to discover mistakes in registration that go back to 2008. Well before Noor challenged Kahn’s 21-term hold on a state House seat, Minnesota’s election administration system should have found and canceled voter registrations from a mail center that is not a residence.

State and county elections officials maintain lists of addresses that are nonresidential, from which no one can register to vote. But little effort has typically gone into ensuring that those lists are accurate and complete.

Election administrators use unforwardable postcards to determine whether a voter registrant’s stated address is in error. But that tactic won’t detect a legitimate mailing address that is not a residence, as is the case at the Cedar Mail Box Center. And a postcard confirming registration printed only in English might not be understood by a new American.

A better approach has been employed since 2011 by Ramsey County. There, elections officials regularly screen the county’s addresses to detect which ones are not residential. Such addresses are omitted from the automated precinct finder used to advise registered voters where to vote. This week, Hennepin County officials said they intend to follow Ramsey’s lead. In particular, they aim to seek the address of every private mail center in the county and remove it from the precinct finder’s roster.

Election officials in the state’s other 85 counties should take note. The District 60B experience shows that until now, mail center addresses on voter registration forms went undetected too easily in Hennepin County. Other counties should adopt Ramsey County’s proactive approach to finding and filtering out such addresses, lest registration mistakes like those in 60B pop up elsewhere around the state.

  • THE LAW

    “[A]n eligible voter may vote only in the precinct in which the voter maintains residence.”

    Minnesota Statutes, 201.016.

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