Ritchie defends legality of program; can Legislature reach bipartisan accord?
Republican legislators and conservative groups filed a lawsuit this week aimed at suspending an online voter registration program that they claim was improperly implemented by Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a DFLer, without legislative approval.
In a news conference announcing the lawsuit this week, those leading the charge claimed that the move was about Ritchie’s unilateral action, not the policy merits of online voter registration.
“Online registration could be the best thing since sliced bread; it could be the worst thing since the plague. We don’t know,” said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa. “At this point it simply doesn’t matter. The Minnesota Legislature did not take public testimony on online voter registration.”
Those pushing the lawsuit, including the Minnesota Voters Alliance and Minnesota Majority, have asked for the case to be expedited.
They hope to see the program, which launched at the end of September and has attracted roughly 2,000 people online to register or update their registrations, suspended before the 2014 legislative session starts in February.
The DFL House and Senate election leads also say they would have liked the bill to come through the Legislature, and they plan to introduce online voter registration bills in both chambers next session. “Instead of filing lawsuits, lawmakers should work to make this reform a permanent option for all eligible Minnesota voters,” House DFL Elections Committee Chair Steve Simon said.
But proposals to implement online voter registration have come before lawmakers in the past, each time failing to be included in broader election reform packages. In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton, following the lead of his predecessor, Tim Pawlenty, has insisted on bipartisan support for election law proposals as a condition for signing them, a factor that has limited the scope of past election reforms for both parties. Online voter registration was introduced by DFL legislators as part of larger omnibus election bills in 2007 and 2009, but both bills were vetoed by Pawlenty, who cited a lack of bipartisan support.
“Democrats have always supported this,” said DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler, who sits on the House Elections Committee. “If it wasn’t included, it was only because Republicans said they wouldn’t vote for the bill if it was in there.
“I think it is very straightforward: Republicans don’t want to make it easier for people to register and vote, because when more people register to vote, Democrats do better. I can’t think of a single election that doesn’t fall along those lines.”
Dayton has said he would like to see online voter registration move through the Legislature, but it’s unclear whether the plan would get the backing of Republicans.
“If this is nothing more than a rubber stamp to cover the secretary of state’s rear end, then why put the people through that? That’s not the way this should work,” said Republican House elections lead Tim Sanders, who wants to see Ritchie suspend the program himself before session starts. Sanders is not participating in the lawsuit. “I don’t think we have to sue the secretary of state to make him follow the law. The election committee has the best reputation of tackling tough issues that everyone can support, and in turn can come up with a strong bipartisan bill.”
Ritchie defends program
For Ritchie’s part, the law that matters in this debate is the 2000 change that required the state to accept electronic signatures in the same way it accepts handwritten signatures. “The 2000 legislation is the one we use in our office,” Ritchie said in an interview with Capitol Report on Tuesday. “In 2000, they said: Online is required, courts can’t deny it, get busy.”
That was enough legal authority for Ritchie and his office to move forward with online registration, he said, a project local governments have been asking him to implement since he first took office. He says the move saves counties trouble and money, adding that it’s only being implemented now because major online systems take time to build.
He also defended the security of his online voter registration tool. Republicans have said they are concerned about the security of the data, especially after a privacy breach in the state’s new health insurance exchange, MNsure, earlier this fall.
“You have to build in big systems,” Ritchie said. “We’ve seen lots of examples of online systems that aren’t carefully done, and there’s so much heartache in the public when they are not done right that it is just a prudent thing to make sure they are done right. We are very careful about this. We’ve had 30 years of experience with this data with zero problems.”
Ritchie would not comment on the lawsuit being brought against him and said he’s simply “used to partisan attacks.” Ritchie and Republicans also quarreled in 2012 after he changed the ballot titles on two Republican-passed constitutional amendments. The state Supreme Court ruled against Ritchie in that case, saying it was unconstitutional for him to change the titles approved by legislators.
He was also quiet as to what could happen next session, as lawmakers debate the merits of the system he has already put in place. “I’m not a fortuneteller,” he said. “The tool is based on the current law, and that law was adopted unanimously. That’s for the Legislature. That’s really not our concern.”
Republicans ‘open’ to online registration
For now, Republicans say that they aren’t sure how they will vote on online voter registration next session, but that they are open to the idea.
“I can’t answer that. I support the concept; I think it’s a great idea. But I want to see it come through the Legislature,” said Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, who also has signed on as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “What are they going to do with all of the data that they collect?”
Drazkowski said that he thinks there’s a “great deal of support” for online voter registration, but that he wants to see a bill laying out the details. “The answer is, we don’t know. We never had a chance to vet it and have public testimony,” he said. “There hasn’t even been a proposal, so how can you take a position on a proposal that hasn’t even been out there?”
Former GOP Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer’s office staffer and activist Kent Kaiser said he thinks Ritchie has been behind the times on implementing many technological advances to the state’s voting system, including online voter registration and electronic pollbooks.
“I don’t think Republicans are against online voter registration. This is just about implementing this properly,” Kaiser said. “It’s not a partisan thing.”
Other GOPers have said they support the idea in theory, including Senate Minority Leader David Hann and Sen. Scott Newman, who has led on many election issues.
Sanders is also interested in the idea. “I’m very open to the idea of online voter registration. That’s not the issue,” Sanders said. “I certainly don’t expect there to be much opposition if we can make sure that the data is secure.”