When defensible decisions (online voter registration) are hurt by process

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 7, 2013 - 8:56 PM

Voter registration, Senate building decisions weren’t optimal.

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Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

Photo: GLEN STUBBE • Star Tribune,

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Decisionmaking processes matter in a representative democracy. That’s the theme that links two lawsuits filed by Minnesota Republicans in recent days faulting decisions made by DFLers. Both ask the courts to determine whether DFLers so abused customary procedures in achieving their desired ends that they ran afoul of the state Constitution.

The two suits:

• Four Republican state representatives joined two conservative watchdog organizations Monday in suing DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie for introducing online voter registration on Sept. 26. Ritchie lacked the express permission of the Legislature for the move, but he argued that it came under the legal umbrella of a 13-year-old legislative authorization for all state agencies to conduct commercial transactions online.

• Former Republican Rep. Jim Knoblach, who represented St. Cloud from 1995 through 2006, filed a complaint Thursday in Ramsey County District Court challenging the constitutionality of the way a new state Senate office building in the Capitol complex was financed and approved. The $90 million for the new building and two parking ramps was included in the 2013 Legislature’s omnibus tax bill in violation of the Constitution’s single-subject rule for legislation, Knoblach said.

This newspaper leaves to the judicial branch’s scholars the questions of constitutional violations. We would only urge the courts to rule swiftly. Online voter registrants’ status should be clarified ASAP. The legality of their registrations could already be an issue in this week’s municipal elections. And Capitol reconstruction, which is tied to the new Senate building, should not be delayed by Knoblach’s suit.

But in the court of public opinion, the claim that the processes that produced these decisions were less than optimal should find a receptive audience. The decisions themselves are defensible on their faces, producing more convenience for voters in one instance and for legislators and Capitol visitors in the other. But those decisions were reached in ways that could serve as precedents for less welcome moves in the future.

Ritchie’s unexpected introduction of online voter registration breaks with the wise insistence of the last several governors that one party should not be allowed to unilaterally alter election laws. The state’s voters indicated their support for that principle just one year ago today in defeating a GOP-backed voter ID constitutional amendment that every DFLer at the statehouse opposed. One-party manipulation of election laws, no matter how benign, is bound to be viewed with suspicion by the opposite party. Erosion of trust in Minnesota elections could result.

The Legislature’s elections committee chairs say they intend to take up online voter registration early in the 2014 session. Regardless of what Minnesota judges say about the suit filed Monday, Ritchie would do well to seek bipartisan blessing and to voluntarily suspend online registration until the Legislature can act.

While the suit against Ritchie is organized and funded by the conservative groups Minnesota Majority and Minnesota Voters’ Alliance, the suit challenging construction of a new Senate office building is the handiwork of one former House Ways and Means Committee chair with a website, stopthesob.org. Knoblach objected when he found an addition to the Capitol complex tuckied into the 2013 tax bill.

The DFLers who put it there — notably Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk — would likely agree with Knoblach that funding the new building with a bonding bill would have been preferable. But a bonding bill requires a 60 percent supermajority, which translated last spring to two GOP votes in the Senate and eight in the House. A large bonding bill containing the new Senate offices failed to win the requisite GOP votes in the House. Bakk and other Senate champions of the idea turned instead to the tax bill, which can be enacted with a simple majority.

Bakk maintains that the maneuver will withstand a court challenge (see adjacent box). But because the addition to the Capitol complex was not sent through the usual lawmaking channels, it didn’t receive the scrutiny of seasoned bonding committee members or the input of the public. No hearings were conducted on the project’s merits. No public discussion of lower-cost alternatives occurred. And no effort was made to secure bipartisan backing. None was needed — the tax bill could pass with DFL votes alone.

A skillful legislator himself, Knoblach knows that the single-subject rule in the Constitution has been liberally interpreted by the courts and stretched by previous Legislatures. But if the Senate office building maneuver is allowed to stand, he said, “We could become like other states, with 1,000-page budget bills containing everything under the sun, and nobody knowing what’s in them.” The Legislature’s accountability to the public would suffer as a result.

Belated hearings by the 2014 Legislature’s capital investment committees on the new Senate building would still have value. Depending on how the courts rule on Knoblach’s suit, they may not even be belated.

  • Bakk’s response

    “This legislation is consistent with authorizing legislation for similar construction projects that have been completed under the supervision of the Minnesota Department of Administration. … I fear the only result of this suit will be the waste of taxpayer resources on legal expenses and the potential costs associated with delaying the construction project.”

    Senate Majority Leader TOM BAKK in response to Jim Knoblach’s lawsuit, Oct. 31.

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