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Minnesota's absentee ballots, the centerpiece of last year's U.S. Senate race, will be simplified and streamlined before next year's election.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie announced Friday that he is changing the administrative rules that govern absentee ballots. And, he said, the new ballots are "more user-friendly and easy to understand."
After a 30-day public comment period that begins Monday, the rules will take effect next March, according to Ritchie's office.
In his announcement, Ritchie specifically mentioned the Senate contest and drawn-out recount as a trigger for the changes.
In a prepared statement, he said the "2008 election and recount experience yielded valuable lessons on how we can improve that system. Redesigning absentee ballot envelopes and instructions is a common-sense solution that helps to eliminate errors voters typically make that result in their ballots being rejected."
The battle between Norm Coleman and eventual winner Al Franken focused in large part on thousands of absentee ballots election judges rejected.
Perhaps predictably, given the result of the race, the Democratic and Republican reactions to the overhaul were sharply at odds.
DFL Chairman Brian Melendez issued a statement that read, in part, "We applaud Secretary Ritchie's continuing commitment to making the voting process more transparent and more accessible to more voters. That commitment was evident throughout the Senate recount, and his recommendations today will help implement the lessons learned from that process."
Countered state GOP Chairman Tony Sutton: "Today's window dressing from Mark Ritchie can't change the fact that Minnesota's absentee ballot system remains broken. ... As a result of Ritchie's unacceptable failure to properly train local election officials, Minnesotans have been subject to appalling disparities in how absentee ballots are counted across the state."
Fritz Knaak, one of Coleman's attorneys in the recount battle, downplayed the significance of the changes. "I don't think it does much of anything," he said. "I get the impression he felt like he had to do something because a lot of people are still feeling touchy about the recount. But I don't see it hurting the process."
Attorney David Lillehaug, who represented Franken, passed on reacting to the changes because he said he hadn't had a chance to examine them.
Ritchie spokesman John Aiken said his boss conducted three dozen meetings around the state after the recount was settled, talking to local officials and voters about changes in the state's elections procedures. In addition, the associations representing cities, counties and school boards were consulted.
Although both the state House and Senate approved bills that would have overhauled parts of the state's election law, Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed them.
Knaack said that substantive changes in Minnesota's voting procedures "still need to be done legislatively if you want substantive changes."
Keesha Gaskins, executive director of the Minnesota League of Women Voters agreed and said her organization will be back at the Legislature next year, pushing again for changes.
"It's really going to be helpful -- it's a good start," she said. "But at the end of the day, the law needs to be revised."
Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota, which monitored the recount, concluded that absentee balloting was the most "troubling" part of the voting system, said the group's director, Mark Halvorson.
"Overall, we're on the right track here," he said. "I think it'll help streamline the process and give voters greater clarity."
According to Ritchie's office, the changes include instructions that use plain language and clearer format; a listing of materials voters will need to complete their absentee ballots; clear labels on absentee ballot materials; better guidance to voters on how to correct mistakes on their ballots; improved step-by-step illustrations; visual cues that direct voters where to sign their names; redundant instructions on the absentee envelopes, and additional instructions for people with disabilities.
Aiken said the changeover should not bring sudden extra costs, since absentee instructions and ballots are routinely printed for each election. There were 290,000 absentee ballots cast in the 2008 election, a Minnesota record.
The old and new ballots and instructions are shown at: www.sos.state.mn.us/ Modules/ShowDocument. aspx?documentid=8569.
Staff writer Bill McAuliffe contributed to this report. Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184