Minnesota legislators smooth absentee balloting

Republicans and DFLers in the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved a measure to make the state's absentee ballot process more transparent and more uniform..

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The 2008 U.S. Senate election between Norm Coleman and Al Franken seemed to be endless. It featured a recount in which election judges scrutinized ballots and monitors for the candidates kept watch.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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The Minnesota Legislature moved Monday to clear away the bitterness and clean up confusion wrought by absentee ballots in the 2008 U.S. Senate race.

Republicans and DFLers in the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved a measure to make the state's absentee ballot process more transparent and more uniform, two problems put under the nation's microscope during the overtime Senate race.

The bill, which would require elections officials to let voters know if their ballots were rejected, likely will head to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's desk next week.

"It is important to tell Minnesotans that all validly cast absentee ballots will be counted," said Rep. Ryan Winkler, a Golden Valley DFLer and House sponsor of the bill.

Election reform measures often are divisive and partisan at the Capitol. Last year the DFL-led Legislature passed a bill to address some of the problems highlighted by the Senate recount and trial, but Pawlenty vetoed that bill, saying it lacked bipartisan support.

After that, a group of lawmakers from both parties held a series of meetings at the University of Minnesota to develop a compromise election reform measure that wouldn't touch off any hot-button controversies.

The bill approved Monday was a result of that work. It passed the Senate on a preliminary voice vote and passed the House 131-2, with Republican Reps. Tom Emmer and Mark Buesgens as the only dissenters. The Senate is set to vote on final passage Monday before sending the bill to the governor.

If the bill becomes law:

•Election officials would have to mail new ballots to all voters whose ballots were rejected and tell them why their ballots were invalid, up until five days before an election. Officials would have to call or e-mail voters whose ballots were rejected within five days of the election, so that voters could cast ballots in person.

•Gone would be the days of election officials examining absentee ballot applications and absentee ballot envelopes for matching signatures. Instead, officials would have to match identifying numbers, like a driver's license number, state identification number or the last four digits of a Social Security number on the envelope and the application.

•Trained absentee ballot boards would decide whether an absentee ballot was valid. Some of those decisions now are made by election judges in polling precincts.

If Pawlenty signs the bill, it would be the second significant change to Minnesota's election law this year. Last week, Pawlenty signed a bill to move the state's primary election from Sept. 14 to Aug. 10. Separately, the Secretary of State moved to make absentee ballot instructions easier to understand and streamline absentee ballot design.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164

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