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After months of court testimony exposing flaws in Minnesota's U.S. Senate election, the state Senate passed a measure Friday that would make it easier for people to register to vote and to vote in person before Election Day or by absentee ballot.
The bill authorizes the secretary of state to permit Minnesotans to register online and to vote in person 18 days before an election, and gives them a better chance of correcting a rejected absentee ballot.
The bill also moves up primary elections from September to June.
The measure passed 41-22, with DFLers saying changes in election law were needed to make voting easier. Republicans said the bill needlessly expanded the time frame for elections and relaxed rules needed to prevent fraud.
The House has advanced measures that deal with provisions similar to some in the Senate bill.
The changes came in the aftermath of seven weeks of testimony in the U.S. Senate election trial between DFLer Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman. The trial revealed mistakes by voters and inconsistent practices by local election officials involving absentee ballots and voter registration.
In a direct response to a controversial ruling in the dispute, one provision of the Senate measure would prevent a court from allowing candidates to veto decisions by county officials tallying rejected absentee ballots in an election recount.
The Minnesota Supreme Court allowed Franken and Coleman to veto absentee ballots that counties said were improperly rejected and should be counted. The counties had identified 1,346 such ballots, but the candidates rejected several hundred of them.
The provision allowing people to vote in person four to 18 days before the election was criticized by Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, and Sen. Chris Gerlach, R-Apple Valley, who said it would convert Election Day into a longer process.
"We won't be voting on the same election," Gerlach said.
But bill author Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, said that such early voting opportunities are available in 31 states and that allowing people to vote in person early is a convenience that can reduce mistakes that otherwise might occur if they cast absentee ballots.
The online registration provision permits the secretary of state's office to provide voter registration on a secure website maintained by the office. While Republicans questioned how the identity of such a registrant could be verified, DFLers said the system would be more restrictive and secure than mail-in registration.
Backers of moving primaries to June said it would make it easier for election officials to process overseas ballots and would give voters more time to evaluate general election candidates.
"I think the public will know more about our candidates if we pick them earlier," said Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.
In another provision growing out of the Senate election dispute, voters whose absentee ballot envelopes are rejected by election officials five or more days before an election must receive a replacement ballot and return envelope.
The bill also requires the governor to call for a special election in the event of a vacancy of a U.S. Senate or House seat. But Sieben said the provision applies to vacancies caused by death or resignation, not a dispute like that between Coleman and Franken.
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