Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's move risks an avoidable court fight.
It’s high time for online voter registration to come to Minnesota, promising the convenience, accuracy and administrative cost savings it has already delivered in 16 other states, with two more state systems pending. It’s a shame that it arrived here under partisan and legal clouds that could threaten its staying power.
Republican legislative leaders were quick to fault Secretary of State Mark Ritchie last week for initiating an online voter registration system without first obtaining explicit legislative permission to do so. Minnesota Majority — the voter fraud alarmist organization that pushed last year’s unsuccessful attempt to make a government-issued photo ID a voting requirement — said it is “consulting attorneys and considering legal actions” to block the new option.
Ritchie had to see those clouds coming. The DFL secretary of state’s previous tangles with Republicans and their allies over ballot question wording and voter fraud served ample warning that a unilateral approach to online registration would meet with GOP criticism and possibly a court challenge.
But Ritchie, who has announced that he won’t seek a third term in 2014, seems like a fellow more inclined to ask for forgiveness than permission when he sees a way to improve election administration. He argues that a 13-year-old statute intended to encourage state agencies to do a wide range of business online gives his office all the legal underpinning it needs to proceed.
That interpretation of the 2000 Uniform Electronic Transactions Act was questioned in a memo last week by attorney Matt Gehring of the nonpartisan Minnesota House Research, who noted that nothing in the legislative history of that statute suggests that it was intended to apply to election laws. Gehring’s analysis was termed “compelling” by Legislative Auditor James Nobles, who added that he shares the GOP’s stated concerns about the adequacy of data security measures associated with online registration.
But Nobles refused GOP legislators’ request to get involved in the registration dispute. That may have Republicans thinking that their only recourse is to ask the courts to rule that Ritchie is superseding his constitutional authority and end online registration.
We think Republican legislators have better options. Instead of casting themselves as opponents of online voter registration — and thereby playing into the hands of critics who tag them as vote suppressors — they have a chance to position themselves as perfecters of a registration option that’s been proven to work in other states and that many Minnesotans are eager to use.
The evidence is in the numbers: As of midday Monday — less than three weeks after its debut — the system had been used 1,123 times, with more than half of the transactions involving changes of address for previously registered voters. The online option spared registrants a time-consuming trip to a government office, and the changes were cheaper for county election officials to process. Online registrations are also more accurate than the ones involving street-corner canvassers filling out hastily scribbled cards.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann was on the right track Monday when he said his caucus “is certainly in favor of making voter registration easy and accessible and convenient for people.” He said his caucus would ask for Senate committee hearings “to begin to talk about legislation to address this issue.” Such legislation should spell out online registration requirements and require administrative procedures that ensure data security.
DFL committee chairs Steve Simon in the House and Katie Sieben in the Senate have already expressed interest in sponsoring a bill of that kind.
Legislators of both parties should meet with Ritchie to discuss their concerns. With the preregistration period for this year’s elections ending today, they should ask the secretary to voluntarily suspend online registrations until the Legislature can weigh in.
Another option: Ritchie and legislators could seek help in achieving a bipartisan result from a ready resource outside the Legislature. The Humphrey School of Public Affairs facilitated a bipartisan task force in 2009-10 that broke through partisan gridlock on absentee balloting. The school stands willing to play that role again.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, like his recent predecessors, has said he won’t sign election bills that lack votes from legislators of both parties. That’s a sound position. It deserves to be matched in the secretary of state’s office with a recognition that bipartisan backing is critical to stable, sustainable election law changes. And it ought to be met with a sincere willingness on the part of minority-party legislators to join DFLers in sensible changes that make voting both a more convenient and a more trusted experience.
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