Federal judge shoots down challenge to state's election system

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 17, 2012 - 9:36 PM

U.S. judge dismissed suit that challenged two statewide election practices. A federal judge dismissed a wide-ranging legal challenge to Minnesota's election day registration system and to the status of voters under court-ordered guardianship

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Sarah Wernimont made her way out of of the Brackett Park Pavilion after voting with her sons Leo, 4, and August, 7, not shown, Tuesday, August 14, 2012 in Minneapolis, MN.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Minnesota's popular system of election day voter registration, used by more than 540,000 voters in the 2008 presidential election, survived a federal court challenge that could have limited its use in November's presidential and statewide election.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank on Friday dismissed a wide-ranging lawsuit filed by the Minnesota Voters Alliance, state Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, and others that challenged both election day registration and voting rights for disabled people who are under court-ordered guardianships.

"This decision today means that the half-million Minnesotans who were relying on election day registration to update their registration, or because they just turned 18, this means they will be able to vote smoothly," said Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a defendant in the suit.

Erick Kaardal, attorney for the plaintiffs, who argued that the election day registration allows votes to be counted before the voters' eligibility can be confirmed, said he will immediately appeal.

"We think we could still be in play for the November 2012 election," he said.

A second issue in the suit involves voting by severely disabled people whose affairs are controlled by legal guardians. Based on complaints of voting by people with disabilities in Crow Wing County, the plaintiffs questioned the assumption in current law that people under guardianship have the right to vote, unless a judge rules otherwise.

Frank dismissed the claim, which had set off alarms among disability advocates.

Boosting turnout

Minnesota's spot at or near the top in voter turnout is largely due to the four-decades-old system of election day registration, which Ritchie said can add 5 to 9 percent in election turnout.

The Minnesota Voters Alliance, a small activist group, and other plaintiffs argued that those registering on election day -- 542,257 of 2.9 million total votes in 2008 -- cannot be vetted as thoroughly as those registering weeks or months before the election.

Pointing to recent close elections, including Al Franken's 312-vote victory over Norm Coleman in the 2008 U.S. Senate race, the plaintiffs said same-day registration votes could make a difference.

But the judge said "to establish a constitutional violation based on voter irregularities, election officials must have engaged in invidious discrimination or intentional misconduct," which was not alleged in the complaint. And he said the lawsuit was "based on the erroneous premise that election officials must verify voters' eligibility before their votes are counted."

Under Minnesota election statutes, the judge said, voters themselves certify their own eligibility to vote, or risk prosecution if they lie.

On the guardianship issue, Frank rejected the argument that it is a violation of the state Constitution to presume that all those under guardianship have the right to vote. The Legislature defines what guardianship means, the judge said, adding: "Absent a specific determination by a court that the individual lacks the capacity to vote, full voting rights are preserved under Minnesota law."

"This decision means that the voice of people with disabilities can still be heard at their polling places in this election year," Steve Larson of the Arc Minnesota, an advocacy group for people with developmental disabilities, said in a statement.

Looking toward appeal

Kaardal and Andy Cilek, president of the voters' alliance, said they looked forward to fighting the issue through the appeals process. "What we have is the court failed to address the constitutional issues in our complaint," Cilek said. Kaardal added: "It's the first step in a long process of federal court review of our claims regarding election day registration."

With Thursday's decision, attention now turns to cases pending before the Minnesota Supreme Court involving a proposed photo ID constitutional amendment. Ritchie sees both the lawsuit and the proposed amendment as part of a campaign to eliminate election day registration, which he said is supported by conservative organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC.

The Minnesota Supreme Court has been asked to determine whether the photo ID amendment can remain on the ballot in its current form, and also what the proper titles should be for both it and a proposed amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage. Those decisions are expected within weeks.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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  • About Friday's ruling

    Friday August 17, 2012

    A federal judge in St. Paul dismissed a challenge to Election Day registration and voting rights for those under guardianship. Activists who filed the suit will appeal.

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