Late last month, Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie simultaneously announced and launched a new online voter registration system at the website MNVotes.org. The move came as a surprise to lawmakers, politicos and just about everybody outside Ritchie’s office.
Some of the problems with this surprise move are that no law had been passed to authorize the change to Minnesota’s election system and that the system was developed out of the public eye, without citizen input or legislative oversight.
Online voter registration seems like a simple service, and as we update our somewhat antiquated and often-inefficient election system, it can make sense to streamline the process. But there are reasons to tread carefully.
Online registration may be convenient for some voters, but it also has the potential to make things more convenient for criminals.
Election statutes are written with the level of specificity they are for a reason. Consider the nationwide ACORN voter registration fraud scandal that rocked the 2008 and 2010 elections. Unscrupulous canvassers were both submitting false voter registration forms and throwing legitimate ones in the trash.
Recently, while agreeing that Ritchie should not have advanced online registration without a legislatively passed directive, the Star Tribune Editorial Board characterized Minnesota Majority — which I lead — as a “voter fraud alarmist organization” (“Online voting system needs bipartisan OK,” Oct. 15). But since our research and factual papers were made public, Minnesota has broken records for voter fraud convictions, and reforms to our election system have been enacted as a direct result of that work. It isn’t alarmist if you’re proven right. Then it’s called “whistle-blowing.”
Few would deny that fraudulent election activity occurs in Minnesota and around the nation. New cases emerge almost daily. Given the opportunity, bad actors will act badly and attempt to subvert the system. If people were angels, we’d have no need of laws.
Gov. Mark Dayton insists on broad bipartisan support to win his signature on election reform legislation. Most would probably agree that this is a fair stance, so is it right for the man who “counts the votes” to make changes to the democratically enacted election system all by himself?
Each of the 13 chapters of election law interact on one level or another, and the election laws on the books are there for many carefully considered reasons that collectively involved thousands of hours of citizen input and numerous bipartisan compromises.
Paper registration forms bearing signatures provide evidence if fraud is attempted. Should someone attempt to submit multiple fraudulent forms, for example, handwriting can be compared. With handwriting analysis, the fraudulent forms could also be used as evidence to prosecute the perpetrator.
Completing multiple handwritten forms presents logistical problems to a would-be fraudster. It takes effort and creates risk of being caught. With an online system, a fraudster’s computer could be programmed to submit numerous phony registrations in a fraction of the time, anonymously. And should the illegal enterprise be detected, linking the fraud to the guilty party could prove impossible.
With the recent breach of MNsure data, information security is also a concern. While voter registrations are already public, the driver’s license and Social Security numbers are not and could be a treasure trove for identity thieves. The security of the Secretary of State’s online system will not be audited until sometime next year at the earliest, but it’s already up and running with the crossed-fingers approach.
These examples demonstrate why election changes need to be enacted by the Legislature with openness and public input — not behind closed doors at the Secretary of State’s office.
The potential pitfalls of online registration can likely be mitigated with a system that’s been openly debated and thoroughly vetted through the proper legislative process. Ritchie should shut down his electronic registration program, purge the voter rolls of any registrations entered through it, apologize to those voters and ask them to reregister the legal way. The next legislative session begins in just a few months. Online registration can be (and almost certainly will be) taken up then.
Dan McGrath is president of Minnesota Majority.