Tread Carefully with Online Voter Registration

At a Minimum, tread more Carefully than Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has been doing with his one-man Show

Late last month, secretary of state Mark Ritchie simultaneously announced and launched a new online voter registration system at the website MNVotes.com. The move came as a surprise to lawmakers, politicos and just about everybody outside the Office of the Secretary of State.

Part of the problem with this surprise move is that no law had been passed to authorize this change to Minnesota’s election system and it was developed out of the public eye without citizen input or legislative oversight.

 

Online voter registration seems like a simple service and as we move forward into the 21st century, updating our somewhat antiquated and often-inefficient election system through the legislature, it can make sense to help 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 easier 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.

A couple days ago, while agreeing that the secretary of state should not have advanced online registration without a legislatively passed prerogative, the Star Tribune Editorial Board characterized Minnesota Majority as a “voter fraud alarmist organization,” 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 of it 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, but we know that not everybody walks the straight and narrow all the time.

Governor Dayton insists on broad bipartisan support to win his signature on election reform legislation. Most would likely agree that’s 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 with one another 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 voter registration forms bearing signatures provide evidence if fraud is attempted. Should someone attempt to submit multiple fraudulent forms, for example, handwriting can be compared and the fraud can be detected. With handwriting analysis, the fraudulent forms could also be used as evidence to prosecute the perpetrator.

Completing multiple hand-written forms presents logistical problems to a would-be fraudster. It takes effort and some risk of being caught.

With an online registration 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 actual guilty party could prove next to impossible.

With the recent breach of online MNSure data, information security is also a concern. While voter registrations are already public data, the drivers 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 in lieu of instilling public confidence.

These examples demonstrate precisely why changes to our election system need to be enacted by the legislature with openness and public input – not unilaterally, 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.

The secretary of state should immediately cease his electronic registration program, purge the voter rolls of any registrations entered through it, apologize to those voters and ask them to re-register the legal way. The next legislative session begins in just a few months. Online registration can (and almost certainly will) be taken up then.

Dan McGrath is president of Minnesota Majority, a government watchdog organization.

Originally published by the Star Tribune on October 18th.

Cross-posted and comments welcome at Minnesota Majority.