Minn. Secretary of State Ritchie defends online voter registration

Republican legislators say there are unanswered questions about the system, security chief among them.

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Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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After meeting with Republican critics on Thursday, DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said that he will not “take a step backward” on online voter registration.

“To your request that we take this service away from citizens, we cannot agree,” Ritchie wrote to Republican legislators.

Last month, Ritchie launched a website that allows Minnesotans to register to vote online.

Since then, Republicans, key Democrats, the state’s nonpartisan legal staff and the legislative auditor have raised questions about why he did it without specific legislative enabling language.

He has said he had the authority without legislators’ sign-off, thanks to existing Minnesota law.

On Thursday, Ritchie met with Republican Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie; Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson; and Rep. Tim Sanders, R-Blaine, to talk through some of their concerns.

“There are questions that need to be answered,” Hann said afterward, stressing the need for assurance that the system is secure. He and the other legislators said that they did not oppose the idea of online registration but that they wanted to see it done right.

The legislators left with the impression that Ritchie would share the internal legal analysis he had done that gave him the assurance that he could create the system without instruction to do so from the Legislature.

Ritchie’s office has declined to release that analysis and told the Star Tribune that he would not waive attorney-client privilege to release it.

On Thursday, Nathan Bowie, Ritchie’s spokesman, said the office continues to maintain that it would not release the analysis.

The analysis is key because bipartisan and nonpartisan experts have said the system should be vetted through the Legislature.

This week, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said that he agreed with Ritchie’s intent but that the system “should get legislative support.”

Legal challenge coming?

The issue of online registration was not brought up during this year’s legislative session as a bipartisan crew of legislators examined — and ultimately passed — a series of changes to Minnesota’s voting law.

Newman, the Republican Senate lead on election issues, said on Thursday that when he read about the new system last month, “the first question that went through my mind was where does he get the legal authority to spend taxpayer money to create the system and implement the system?”

The Republicans also raised the specter of a legal challenge to the online registration system, which could cause trouble in upcoming local elections if voters registered online and then the system was found to be invalid.

No one has sued over online registration, although cash-strapped Minnesota Majority on Thursday sent out an e-mail fundraiser asking for donations to fund a potential lawsuit.

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