ST. PAUL, Minn. — A Minnesota judge said Friday he likely lacks power to invalidate voter registrations of thousands of people who signed up through a new online system, which has come under fire because of how it was created.
But Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann didn't reveal during a hearing whether he'd let the disputed registration tool remain in place. The case hinges on whether Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie acted within his power when he set up the system even though the Legislature didn't explicitly direct him to do it.
No matter what he decides, Guthmann said the type of legal action by filed by GOP legislators and conservative groups to block the system would limit his ability to order a scrubbing of voter rolls. He indicated that "the most I can do is stop the registration going forward" and said Ritchie's critics probably would have to file a separate case to challenge the more than 2,000 new or modified registrations since the online launch in September.
The four lawmakers and two groups, Minnesota Majority and the Minnesota Voters Alliance, contend Ritchie exceeded his authority and misused taxpayer money by independently setting up the system. Their attorney, Erick Kaardal, said money spent to build the website and time by government staff to promote it are out of bounds.
"There's injury going on right now, and we want to nip it in the bud," he said. Kaardal cited the key voter registration law that describes the physical features of a voter application form as evidence that policymakers didn't envision an Internet-based option.
The plaintiffs maintain they don't necessarily oppose the new channel for voter registrations but said it should have been vetted and approved by the Legislature first. The issue appears likely to arise during the 2014 session regardless of the case's outcome.
Assistant Attorney General Alethea Huyser, who appeared as a lawyer for Ritchie, argued that a wide-reaching state law allowing electronic alternatives to paper forms when conducting government businesses enabled him to create the registration website. But beyond that, she said, the plaintiffs lacked proper standing to sue because they couldn't show they were concretely harmed.
"There has been no contention that there have been ineligible voters who have registered," she said. "There is not a contention in this case that ineligible voters are voting."
People using the new system must present verifiable identification data and an electronic signature. Applications are checked in similar fashion as paper forms.
Guthmann, who interrupted and challenged arguments of both attorneys frequently during a 90-minute hearing, didn't offer hints at how soon he would rule.