Several Republican lawmakers are joining a lawsuit against DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie that aims to suspend an online voter registration tool that they say was not properly vetted by the Legislature.
The conservative advocacy groups leading the effort, Minnesota Majority and the Minnesota Voters Alliance, filed suit in Ramsey County Court on Monday, alleging that Ritchie used unilateral power to install a new online voter registration tool after session ended and without bringing it through the proper legislative channels. They are asking the court to suspend the practice until it can be voted on by lawmakers.
GOP Rep. Steve Drazkowski, who joined the lawsuit along with Reps. Jim Newberger, Ernie Leidiger and Mary Franson, stressed that the lawsuit is not about the merits of allowing people to register to vote online.
“Online registration could be the best thing since sliced bread, it could be the worst thing since the plague, we don’t know,” Drazkowski, of Mazeppa, said. “At this point it simply doesn’t matter; the Minnesota Legislature did not take public testimony on online voter registration.”
Roughly 1,900 Minnesotans have gone online to register to vote or modify their existing registration since Ritchie launched the program in late September. Ritchie maintains that his office has always worked to offer online versions of services that are provided for in state law.
Secretary of State spokesman Nathan Bowie said the office is on “firm legal ground providing eligible voters with common sense tools based on Minnesota law.” “Online voter registration follows a series of other digital services we have introduced to help Minnesotans, while saving taxpayers’ money,” Bowie said in a statement. “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.”
Some Democrats have disagreed with Ritchie on that point. Gov. Mark Dayton and both DFL election committee chairs have said they would like to see the proposal go through the legislative process. But Minnesota Majority President Dan McGrath said DFL Senate elections lead Katie Sieben declined to participate in their lawsuit. House DFL Elections Chairman Steve Simon signaled his support for online voter registration through the Legislature, but he dismissed the need for a lawsuit.
“Instead of filing lawsuits, lawmakers [should] work to make this reform a permanent option for all eligible [Minnesota] voters,” Simon tweeted after the lawsuit was announced. Both Simon and Sieben have said they will introduce a bill to implement online voter registration when session starts next year. Election law changes in Minnesota have long faced a higher bar than other legislative changes. Dayton and previous governors have required bipartisan agreement on election law proposals as a condition of signing them into law.
Attorney Erick Kaardal said the plaintiffs are trying to expedite the case so it can be resolved before the start of the 2014 legislative session in February. He said the case could set a precedent for legislators to mount a legal challenge in cases where their “power is usurped.”
Kaardal also called Ritchie a “serial violator of the constitution,” hearkening back to the 2012 Minnesota Supreme Court decision that Ritchie lacked the authority to change the ballot titles of two GOP-passed constitutional amendments, one to implement a photo identification requirement to vote and another to ban gay marriage in the constitution.
“He doesn’t care what the law is,” Kaardal said, suggesting that Ritchie was misusing state funds on the program. “Taxpayers have a right to have taxpayer funds spent for lawful purposes.”
Drazkowski said without a vote from the Legislature, online voter registration is not technically legal. That could open the door to numerous lawsuits following the 2014 election, he said. Candidates could argue that voters who registered online are not actually legally registered to vote.
But Republican lawmakers wouldn’t commit to voting for the proposal if it comes up in the Legislature next year. Drazkowski said there’s a “great deal” of support in the idea of online voter registration, but added: “How can you take a position on a proposal that hasn’t even been been out there?”