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Legality of online voter registration now in judge’s hands

Posted by: Abby Simons under Minnesota legislature Updated: December 13, 2013 - 6:05 PM

Opponents of a state website for online voter registration called its implementation the equivalent of stealing from taxpayers in a spirited court hearing Friday over a legal challenge to the system, while the state countered that it has the legal authority to create a system that will likely save money.

In the meantime, challengers to the website said they don't intend to take on the validity of registration by 2,500 voters who have used the website. Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann, who peppered arguments with several questions and comments of his own, did not say when he would issue a ruling.

The hearing followed a lawsuit filed last month by a group of lawmakers and interest groups Minnesota Majority and the Minnesota Voters Alliance who want it stopped. They contend that DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie overstepped his authority when he launched the website in September.

Along with the interest groups, Reps. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa, Jim Newberger of Becker, Ernie Leidiger of Mayer and Mary Franson of Alexandria are plaintiffs on the lawsuit.

Attorney Erick Kaardal argued that his clients aren't opposed to online voter registration, only how it was singularly created by the Secretary of State without going through the Legislature. He accused Ritchie of breaking the law by spending taxpayer money without lawmakers' approval.

“It’s a felony, it’s embezzlement, whatever it is, it’s wrong to use state money for your own private purpose.” Kaardal said.

However, assistant Minnesota Attorney General Alethea Huyser defended the system, arguing that it’s legal under the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) passed in 2000, which authorized the use of electronic records and signatures instead of paper. Pointing out that online voter registration will likely save taxpayer money, she dismissed the challenge to online voter registration is based on principle, not illegal spending.

“It’s sort of evident that their objection is with the policy, not that system.” she said.

Kaardal countered that Minnesota election law mandates that a voter registration application must be submitted “in person or by mail” and that the Legislature did not expressly point out how voter registration laws would change under the UETA.

Guthmann asked Kaardal the point of a Uniform act if it must individually amend every law to which it applies.

“Why not just say ‘This applies to everything. Isn’t everything everything?” Guthmann asked. “Why list 5,000 laws and include the exceptions?”

Guthmann also grilled Huyser on whether election laws require a different system than UETA allows. Huyser pointed out that although UETA allows electronic signatures, the judge said it defeats the purpose of signatures when it comes to registering to vote.

The signatures on voter registration applications are to verify that the information they've provided is true, and that electronic signature can serve the same purpose, Huyser said.

Huyser claimed the “Quo Warranto” lawsuit, which is designed to challenge the governmental authority, does not have standing on the claim that it’s on behalf of taxpayers.

“If this is subject to taxpayer standing almost every action would be subject.” She said. “Anything a taxpayer objected to could result in a lawsuit because they would have taxpayer standing.”

You’re arguing that if a public official misuses public funds, who has standing? No one?” Guthmann countered.

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