Will MN court pull plug on online voter registration?

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota’s new online voter registration system has run into problems from the day it launched in late September.  Just as critics predicted.

But the problems aren’t borne by voter fraud, security concerns or technical glitches — at least not yet. As it turns out, online voter registration may not even be legal, based on the way the state’s top elections official presented it.

Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie initiated the system, without legislative approval. A lawsuit filed by two voters’ rights groups and a handful of Republican lawmakers asserts Ritchie exceeded his constitutional authority. A Ramsey County District Court will hear the case this week.

“The state Legislature has said that registration can only be by mail or in person,” said Erick Kaardal, attorney for the plaintiffs. “So they come up with these excuses why they don’t need to follow the state law, which was prescribed by the state Legislature. When something is democratically passed, then executives need to follow that law.”

Minnesota would become the 15th state to allow online voter registration, reinforcing its reputation as a national leader in voter turnout in most election cycles. Proponents contend it’s a user-friendly way to increase participation, it cuts clerical costs for data entry and the printing of paper registrations while improving the accuracy of voter rolls.

“We don’t comment on litigation, but we are on firm legal ground providing eligible voters with common sense tools based on Minnesota law,” Nathan Bowie, director of communications for the Minnesota Secretary of State, said in a recent statement.

A brief filed on Ritchie’s behalf points out the state has accepted voter registration applications electronically since 2004. The defense also claims a 2000 state law requiring the state to legally recognize electronic signatures on documents in effect validates online registration.

Court documents say Minnesotans applying for a driver’s license can routinely register to vote by checking a box and providing a signature, which is electronically transmitted to elections officials by the Department of Public Safety. “In the past nine years, more than 500,000 Minnesotans have used the electronic ‘motor voter’ process to register to vote or to update their voter registrations,” according to the filing.

“Online voter registration follows a series of other digital services we have introduced to help Minnesotans, while saving taxpayers’ money,” said Bowie. “Thousands have already benefited from these tools and we look forward to continuing to serve our citizens with the most efficient government possible. Our state is at the top of the nation in voter participation and election administration, and we work hard to make sure we stay number-one.”

Yet critics say it’s less about the policy of online registration than about the process. They call it a power grab. Even Gov. Mark Dayton and the nonpartisan state legislative auditor have questioned whether the retiring secretary of state overstepped his legal limits.

The lawsuit invokes a rarely used legal procedure — writ of quo warranto — that asks the court to order Ritchie to cite the statutory authority that allows him to initiate online voter registration and say why the system does not violate the separation of powers in the Minnesota Constitution.

Attorney Erick Kaardal.

PROCESS THIS: MN voters’ groups and GOP legislators represented by Erick Kaardal say it’s not about the policy of online registration but the process and power grab.

“If we do prevail, certainly Secretary of State Ritchie should reimburse the public treasury for his illegal spending,” said Kaardal. “This is just beyond the scope of his authority to take money and spend it on things that are not authorized by law … We’ll probably have to file a follow-up lawsuit so that reimbursement occurs.”

The group asked the court to require all online registrants to re-register to vote. To date, about 2,500 Minnesotans have registered online. About a third of online registrations were from new voters, while two-thirds of the registrations involved current voters who updated their information on file.

Contact Tom Steward at [email protected].

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