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Election reform bills quietly advancing that would let Minnesota ‘catch up’ with much of nation

Leaders seem to be warming to the idea of early voting that would limit some of the 2008 absentee voting problems, but the fate of other proposals is less certain.

Mark Ritchie
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie explains his proposals for election law changes at a Wednesday legal seminar.

Away from the noise and glare of the Norm Coleman-Al Franken legal battle, a collection of election reform bills has been moving slowly and somewhat quietly through the Minnesota House and Senate.

Together, the pieces of legislation, if passed, would fundamentally change the way Minnesotans vote and the state’s election system operates.

Moving toward final committee consideration — or, in some cases, already on the Senate or House floors — the bills would mean, among other things:
    • Easier registration.
    • Early voting at polling places using voting machines weeks before Election Day.
    • Fewer absentee ballots and a substantial reduction in the administrative headaches that go with them.
    • Less of a chance of an automatic publicly funded recount.
    • The option of a postponed election in the event of a late-campaign controversy or tragedy, as in the death of Paul Wellstone 10 days before the 2002 U.S. Senate election.

On still rocky footing is a piece of legislation that veteran election administrators believe is necessary: an earlier in-the-year Election Day for party primaries.

One proposal would cover provisional election certificates
Another bill that hasn’t advanced far would require the issuance of a provisional election certificate when a recount is completed, before any election contest would ensue. Such a law would have given Al Franken his certificate after the Minnesota Canvassing Board’s Jan. 6 decision.

“I thought they’d be more high profile,” Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, said of the score of bills dealing with election reform that were introduced this session in both chambers. Sieben is the chief author of nine separate bills, most in synch with Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s legislative agenda.

High profile or not, sometimes the size of the audience isn’t as critical as the stature of the audience. The most influential audience member sits in the Capitol’s southwest corner office, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s apparent conversion to accepting early voting provisions could be a key element in moving Minnesota into the mainstream of election procedures used in many other states.

Under the proposed legislation, weeks before a statewide primary or general Election Day, a citizen would be able to go to a polling site — a city hall or county building — and cast his or her vote at a voting machine, just as if it were the “real” Election Day.

Right now, 32 states allow either early voting or “no excuse” in-person absentee voting. In Minnesota, a voter still needs to state a reason for needing to cast a vote via absentee ballot. And we know the problems that a spike in absentee balloting caused in the 2008 election, when 300,000 Minnesotans cast their votes that way, double the number in 2006.

During the past month, Ritchie’s office and key legislators have been told the governor is on-board on the early voting issue.

Original bills, backed by Ritchie, sought a lengthy period of 30 days before Election Day for early voting — the same time span allowed for absentee balloting.

The governor’s office has pushed to reduce that to 15 days, and a bill set for a vote in the Senate Finance Committee has an 18-day pre-election voting period. The House version has moved in Pawlenty’s direction to 15 days.

“Obviously, his [Pawlenty’s] vote counts,” said Rep. Will Morgan, DFL-Burnsville, chief author of the  House bill. “We did the 15 days to try to help allay some of his concerns. We think he might be supportive of it. We think it has a chance.”

‘Early voters’ wouldn’t be able to change mind
Unlike absentee voting, an early voter casts his or her vote as if it were Election Day. A ballot isn’t mailed in or handed to a clerk in an envelope at a municipal counter. In early voting, the ballot is put into a voting machine and counted right then and there.

So, unlike absentee voting, an early voter can’t change his or her mind; if you vote on, say, Oct. 20th, it’s as if you’re voting on that special Tuesday in November. Currently, an absentee voter who already cast a vote can show up at the polling place on Election Day and, essentially, change his or her mind and replace his or her absentee ballot with a live vote.

“Governor Pawlenty remains open to the idea of early voting, provided that there are safeguards against fraud and the time frame is reasonable,” Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung told MinnPost Wednesday. “The governor’s open to reforming or improving our state’s election laws, but he wants to be certain we uphold the integrity of the system. That’s always been his position. The issues with absentee ballots in this Senate election have shown that we might be able to make the system work better.”

Still, McClung raised one thorny issue: McClung said that Pawlenty would like “other election reforms such as photo ID” considered this session.

But a House bill requiring a voter to produce a photo ID at the polls, sponsored by Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, never got out of its first committee hearing in February. So, for now, the photo ID concept — opposed by Ritchie and most voting rights advocates — isn’t in play.

But Sen. Chris Gerlach, R-Apple Valley, the GOP’s ranking member on election issues, said the photo ID issue could come up during any debate on the Senate floor.

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In 2007, the governor vetoed a bill that would have included so-called “no-excuse” absentee voting.

But Ritchie said of Pawlenty, with whom he’s met on the matter, “My impression is that he’s seen [early voting] in other states be very successful, but he wants to do it with care and see how it goes … He is traveling. He is seeing it in other states.”

Changes would have eased absentee ballot confusion
Speaking Wednesday to a group of lawyers at a continuing legal education seminar organized by the Minnesota State Bar Association, Ritchie estimated that as many as three-quarters of the 300,000 absentee ballots cast in 2008 would have been cast by early voting, if such an opportunity existed.

Morgan said in an interview that he wasn’t reacting to the absentee ballot troubles of the Coleman-Franken election when he proposed the early voting bill that aligns with Ritchie’s desires.

“We saw on TV last fall thousands and thousands of residents in other states showing up all through October and voting,” Morgan said. “It wasn’t absentee voting and folding the paper up and putting it into an envelope and then hoping it worked. I heard from a lot of people, ‘Why don’t we do that here?’ My interest was in expanding options to make our voting system more convenient to do our civic duty.”

Other changes proposed in bills still alive in both chambers:

    • Instant voter registration via driver’s license application, which Pawlenty also vetoed in 2007. (In this provision, a driver’s license applicant has to “opt out” if he or she doesn’t want to register to vote. Gerlach opposed that in committee, asserting that registering to vote should be “an affirmative action.” He predicted a gubernatorial veto on this instant registration reform.)
    • Creation of a website by the secretary of state so absentee voters can quickly learn if their ballot envelopes were rejected.
    • Reduction of the recount threshold from one-half of 1 percent to one-quarter of 1 percent of total votes counted, and a recount wouldn’t be automatic — the loser would have to request it.
    (In a statewide election with 3 million voters, the margin for a recount would be reduced from about 15,000 votes to 7,500, which is still substantial, compared with the Coleman-Franken sliver of 312.)
    • If early voting were in place, one proposal would postpone an election if a candidate dies, withdraws or announces a terminal illness before Election Day. A special election then would be held in December with a replacement candidate. This attempts to address situations like the Wellstone death 10 days before the election when Walter Mondale was instantly pressed into being a candidate.

Said Morgan: “As we look back to six-plus years ago, I’m not certain under those circumstances that the people of Minnesota were given the best opportunity to select a senator. Nothing against Sen. Coleman. But I think most people would recognize, party aside, that was not the best way to do that.”

While it seems to be gaining momentum in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, there hasn’t been a push in the Legislature for any sort of instant runoff voting system.

But the Minnesota Supreme Court is set to hear arguments May 13 in a Minneapolis IRV case.

Another key reform that that isn’t far along is legislation to move the state primary elections from September to June. Despite some pushback from local election officials, Ritchie feels strongly about this. For one, it would allow more time for overseas voters — especially voters in the military — to get their ballots and return them in a timely fashion.

Right now, Minnesota is up against a Department of Defense recommendation that there be a 45-day gap between a primary and general election. Now, for example, with a Sept. 7 primary in 2010 — and the follow-up State Canvassing Board approval of results — and the need to prepare general election ballots, the rush to a Nov. 2 election is difficult.

Ritchie believes the U.S. Department of Justice may have to sue the state to require a full 45 days between the completion of a primary election, its Canvassing Board follow-up and the general election.

“We don’t seem to have broken through yet with the legislators to get a fire lit to make this change,” Ritchie said of a June or August primary.

Ritchie foresees nightmare scenario
His fear?

“I lay awake at night because I believe there will be a contested recount in a primary,” he said. “A contested recount in a primary is a disaster.”

Imagine this: A September primary results in a recount and then an election contest in court. Could it all be wrapped up by Election Day?

“I don’t actually believe we know the process and procedure by which we could have a November general election,” Ritchie said.   “I believe we will have a recount, a contested recount, that will drag out in the primary, and I don’t know how a contested recount in the primary gets adjudicated in the process we have now … I’ll be curious.”

That’s a crisis for another year.

For now, the legislation in this session’s Capitol pipeline needs key committee votes soon.

The legislation also needs bipartisan support. Gerlach said that if Pawlenty signals a comfort level with the early voting proposals, as many as a dozen Republican Senators could support it.

“Almost everything we’re suggesting is common practice in many other states,” said Ritchie. “I’m in the unenviable position of seeing Minnesota being behind.”

Just about three weeks remain in this session for Minnesota to catch up.

Jay Weiner can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.