A Ramsey County District Court clock has been ticking since mid-December on a lawsuit filed by a handful of Republican officials challenging DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s authority to institute online voter registration, which he did in September.
The Legislature ought to beat Judge John Guthmann to the punch. Soon after they reconvene on Feb. 25, legislators ought to give Ritchie the legal green light he may or may not have had last fall. Voters, election administrators and taxpayers benefit from the convenience, accuracy and cost-saving efficiency of online registration.
Ritchie, who plans to leave office at the end of this year, maintains that he has always had the law on his side. He cites a law enacted in 2000 allowing government agencies to switch to electronic records and to allow for electronic signatures on forms and documents. His application of that law to voter registration caught legislators by surprise and was met with bipartisan skepticism and the lawsuit.
But, to their credit, Republican legislators are signaling an ability to parse their doubt about Ritchie’s action last fall from the need for a robust online voter registration system going forward.
“We don’t have any problem with people being able to register online,” Rep. Tim Sanders, the lead minority Republican on the House Elections Committee, said last week. “Our concern is security. We want to see if there’s a way to verify the information that’s provided … We’ll come to the table with ideas.” He said enactment of a bipartisan online registration bill this year is “very possible.”
House Elections Committee Chairman Steve Simon — a DFL candidate to succeed Ritchie — was similarly confident last week that a bipartisan outcome could be achieved. He’s the sponsor of a bill that would explicitly allow the secretary of state to implement both online registration and online requests for absentee ballots. He said he’s open to incorporating Republican ideas about security.
That spirit is welcome — and essential, as long as DFL Gov. Mark Dayton holds to his vow to veto any election-related bill that lacks support from both major parties. Dayton’s position is in Minnesota’s best interest. When one party goes it alone — as Republicans tried to do in 2012 with a constitutional amendment requiring a government-issued photo ID card — the result can be an election system skewed to one party’s advantage.
The chief GOP concern is security, not so much from data thieves as from the old GOP bugaboo, voter fraud. Republicans want anti-fraud procedures spelled out in law. That’s not an unreasonable request. But it shouldn’t go so far as to bar registrations from foreign IP servers, which would inconvenience traveling Minnesotans, or to require those who already have registered online to re-register. Simon’s bill does neither of those things.
We suspect that existing law and practices in the secretary of state’s office are already up to the security challenge posed by online registration. If anything, online processes should strengthen existing barriers to both fraud and error.
Online registrations don’t require laborious copying of hard-to-read handwritten information into a database. They should speed the updating of records when a voter moves, eliminating the risk of a voter’s name appearing on two rosters on Election Day. They should make verification of driver’s license numbers or other identification easier and faster for administrators and less costly for taxpayers.
For voters, the convenience of online registration should encourage more registration before Election Day. That, in turn, should lead to shorter lines and fewer surprises at the polls. Voters will be able to easily check their registration status before an election and make any changes needed to assure their eligibility.
Minnesotans have long prided themselves on clean, efficient, trustworthy elections. Allowing voters to register online is in keeping with that tradition, even if the way in which it was initiated is judged to have fallen short.
We hope that an affirmation of online registration early in the legislative year also will bolster another tradition — a close working relationship between the Legislature and the secretary of state’s office. Even if Ritchie is on firm legal ground, his move last fall should not have caught legislators off guard.