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Ritchie proposes major reforms to Minnesota’s election system

At 11:33 a.m. today, the cross-examination of Dakota County elections official Kevin Boyle continued on the third floor of the Minnesota Judicial Center.

It was part of Week Three of the ongoing Al Franken-Norm Coleman election trial.

The centerpiece issue: rejected absentee ballots.

One reason: Between 2006 and 2008, twice as many Minnesotans voted by absentee ballots, about 300,000 for the Coleman-Franken race, with about 12,000 being rejected for all sorts of reasons.

Those reasons remain at the heart of the case; how variously messed-up absentee ballots are counted or not by a three-judge panel will determine who is Minnesota’s next U.S. senator.

Fittingly – and not coincidentally – at the very same time this morning, one block west on the State Capitol campus, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie was proposing a series of major reforms to Minnesota’s election system.

Proposal arose from recount, trial experience

They are reforms borne of many of the controversies and shortcomings revealed during the painstaking Coleman-Franken recount – and now the never-ending trial.

It was as if, he said, an “electron microscope” were placed on Minnesota’s electoral system during the recount and now.

Mark Ritchie

So, Ritchie toured the state during the past month listening to local elections officials. Today, at his news conference a stone’s throw from his office, Ritchie was accompanied by a half-dozen county elections chiefs from around the state, there to support him.

Key elements that Ritchie will propose to the Legislature and for which he’ll seek passage include:

• Early voting, beginning 30 days before an election, with no excuse or reason required.

You want to vote early, you can. It’s not absentee voting. No paperwork. You’re registered, you vote, and vote is counted right then and there.

Exactly where remains unclear, but probably at a county or municipal building and via a voting machine, not a hand-written absentee ballot. Many states have voting centers in places like shopping malls.

• Absentee voting via mail, as in the past, but, again, with no specific reason or excuse needed. And under his proposal, no witness would be needed to certify an absentee voter’s signature or veracity. It would be a “self-certified” absentee ballot. (Witness issues have arisen frequently in the Franken-Coleman trial.)

• Absentee ballots would be opened and counted at a central county location, not at each precinct, up to about three days before Election Day. Votes coming closer to Election Day wouldn’t be counted until Wednesday, after election officials knew who voted in person.

“How can we reduce that stress [on local election officials] that then can generate errors and problems?” Ritchie asked.

• A recount margin trigger that is lowered from one-half of a percentage point to one-quarter of a percentage point.

This wouldn’t have affected the Franken-Coleman race, with its miniscule gap of one-one-hundredth of one percent.

In the Senate case, the one-half of one percent trigger would have meant a recount if Coleman would have won by less than 14,000 votes on Election Night.

“That’s a very large number of votes, given how accurate our machines are,” Ritchie said.

Under the Ritchie proposal, that gap is reduced to 7,000 votes.

“That’s still a huge margin,” Ritchie said.

For local elections, such a reduced recount margin wouldn’t apply with turnouts smaller than 25,000.

One other matter: The recount would have to be sought by the loser; it wouldn’t be automatic. But the state would pay the cost.

• He wants the primary election pushed up earlier in the calendar year from September. He would support June or August, two months currently being discussed at the Legislature.

• His reform package doesn’t include the option of a runoff election in a case like Franken’s and Coleman’s.

One issue with a runoff: It’s far more expensive than a recount. Runoffs often have low turnout and – guess what? – runoffs can have recounts, too.

For the complete outline of Ritchie’s reform agenda, go here.

Legislative hearings are expected soon. Gov. Tim Pawlenty needs to weigh in, too, of course.

Off-year seen as best for reform
An off-cycle election year is the best time for reform, Ritchie said. That way, election officials have a year to work out glitches before a major election year, such as 2010, with a governor’s and legislative races.

If Ritchie’s reform package were in place in November of 2008, early voting would have reduced the amount of work at the precincts on Election Day, Ritchie said. And fewer absentee ballots likely would have been cast and, presumably, rejected.

In the subsequent recount, there would have likely been fewer challenges by the campaigns.

“Can you get wrongly rejecteds down? Yes,” Ritchie said of his reform proposals. “Can you get voter error down? Yes. We think this would help. It wouldn’t have changed the recount much. But it would have changed the contest.”

Despite that Senate election contest, Ritchie said elections judges statewide have told him the 2008 election “was the smoothest election in their memory. The fact it was the largest election ever and the smoothest is a very important to keep in mind. Our system is basically sound.”

Still, as the folks litigating that election contest trial a block away know, a little bit of change wouldn’t hurt.

Jay Weiner reports on sports and public policy, outdoors and the environment.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 02/11/2009 - 05:09 pm.

    To read Mr. Weiner and Mr. Ritchie, you’d think there was no such thing as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), a subject which Mr. Ritchie at least, seems to have avoided in the past. He addresses the strawman of the standard runoff election, as though it were the only alternative.

    No wonder! IRV would raise the profile and exposure of the candidates who are not endorsed by the major parties. IRV represents a challenge to their dominance.

    Too often, voters are afraid to vote for a superior candidate who does not represent one of the major parties, on the theory advanced by those same parties that they will “throw their votes away”. IRV would put an end to the MN election campaign process’ stacked deck.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schmitz on 02/12/2009 - 12:19 pm.

    The idea of the loser waving the recount bothers me, we vote to determine the representation that we want, allowing one party to waive the accuracy of the count means that the decision is not made by the election. If the recount is necessary so be it. lets count all the votes and declare a winner. Perhaps less emphisis on instant information would allow better verification, do we really have to know the winner before the ten oclock news?

  3. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 02/12/2009 - 02:07 pm.

    Thank heavens we have Mark Ritchie in the Secretary of State position. He has been most careful not to favor one side or the other. How unlike the Sec of State in Florida in 2000 or the S of S in Ohio in 2004. I have donated to several Sec of State campaigns in other states, realizing the importance of that office after those two debacles.

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