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M. Ryder, Tribune Media Services

Voter registration improvements await

  • Article by: DOUG CHAPIN
  • November 8, 2012 - 7:38 PM
Voters' rejection of the photo ID constitutional amendment ends, for now, a long and divisive debate over whether voter fraud is a problem in Minnesota and, if so, whether ID is the solution.

While the defeat of the amendment -- when combined with DFL control of the Legislature -- probably ends the debate on voter ID for the next session, it shouldn't end the discussion about how the state's election system could be improved.

Indeed, the voter ID debate that has consumed the state for the last two years has left Minnesota on the outside looking in at key reforms that hold great promise for addressing both fears of fraud and concerns about disenfranchisement in state elections. Now, in the wake of photo ID's defeat at the polls, is the time for the Legislature to work in a bipartisan manner with the secretary of state and election officials statewide to put these reforms into place.

At its heart, the recent ID debate in Minnesota (like similar debates across the nation) is rooted in uncertainty about the quality and integrity of the voter rolls. In Minnesota, as in many states across the nation, citizens still register to vote or change their registrations using old-fashioned technology: a printed form that, once complete, is entered into a database that ultimately becomes the voter rolls.

While such a system is familiar (and common in many states), it has considerable drawbacks, as described in a recent report by the Pew Center on the States: inaccuracy as information is transferred from handwritten forms to computer databases, inefficiency because of the complicated process involved in populating and maintaining the rolls, and costliness (both in terms of time and taxpayer dollars) in making it all work.

Already, states are beginning to seek a new way to manage voter registration that avoids the drawbacks of the current system.

First, more than a dozen states already have embraced online voter registration (OVR) -- linking their voter rolls to other databases like motor vehicle records -- in an effort to ease the process for voters and election officials alike. OVR not only streamlines the process but also allows the state to verify registrants' identity and citizenship at the outset. Because of this balance, OVR is popular with Republicans and Democrats alike in every region of the country.

In addition, states are beginning to band together to share registration and other data that will help ensure the integrity of the voter rolls while also opening them up to larger numbers of eligible voters. With Pew's help, seven states -- Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, Utah, Virginia and Washington -- have joined the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a nonprofit data exchange designed to improve the accuracy of America's voter rolls and increase access to voter registration for all eligible citizens. The ERIC states not only have been able to identify voters who don't belong on the rolls but also have reached out to eligible citizens who have not yet registered to vote.

Minnesota lawmakers -- as well as Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and local election officials -- should take a look at OVR and ERIC and decide, as so many other states have, that modernizing the registration system by adopting one or both will make the state's elections more convenient and more secure.

The parties have spent almost two years fighting -- in the statehouse, in the courthouse, in the media and on the campaign trail -- about who's right on voter ID; now is the time for everyone who claims to care about elections to think about what's right for the state's voters. OVR and ERIC -- which address the real problem of an outdated system -- are an excellent starting place for such discussion, and an overdue opportunity for bipartisan cooperation and leadership to enhance the voting process in Minnesota.

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Doug Chapin is director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

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