In the brief couple months since Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie unilaterally rolled out online voter registration, investigations of fraud via the system are already under way in at least one Minnesota county, but there’s a potential problem. What is the correct venue to file charges in?
If an ineligible person uses a computer in Hennepin County to register to vote in Dakota County and the application is received electronically by the secretary of state’s office in Ramsey County, which county attorney has jurisdiction to prosecute?
Under the laws of Minnesota, jurisdiction normally resides in the county where the application is received and the voter is ultimately registered to vote. Since online registrations are all initially received by the secretary of state in St. Paul, to be retransmitted to the county where the applicant resides, will the Ramsey County attorney be responsible to prosecute every case of online voter registration fraud in the state?
This is an issue that may be up to the criminal courts to decide, since the Legislature had no opportunity to write laws governing how the election laws would be applied and enforced with the secretary’s unauthorized online voter registration system.
Lack of legislation to govern the process also means that a key piece of evidence for prosecuting registration fraud has been removed from the mix. In many voter registration fraud cases that were successfully prosecuted over the past few years, the undeniable existence of the perpetrator’s signature on a registration form was the deciding factor leading to a plea of “guilty.”
The secretary of state’s unilateral rollout of online registration has opened a Pandora’s box of legal issues in prosecuting fraud cases, which at best make convicting guilty parties more difficult and at worst, could make it impossible.
These are just a couple of examples of how dangerous it can be to make election system changes without thorough vetting by the legislative process. Minnesota has 13 chapters of interdependent election laws, which must be taken as a whole when considering changes.
Online voter registration isn’t a bad idea on its face, but it has to be done the right way, taking all of the other components of law into consideration with an eye toward consistency and the overall integrity of the election system. Simply, that means properly enacting it through the Legislature.