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Minnesota Majority mulls legal action against Ritchie’s online voter-registration tool

Republican legislators say Secretary of State Mark Ritchie exceeded his authority; his office defends the system and his action.

The Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office launched an online tool late last month without specific legislative approval for an online voter registration program.

At least one conservative activist group is weighing whether to go to court with the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office over its new online voter registration tool.

The office launched the online tool late last month without specific legislative approval for an online voter registration program, and Republican lawmakers quickly objected.

A review by the House Research Department said legislative enactment of such a program “would be the more sound legal approach.”

Dan McGrath of Minnesota Majority said Thursday evening that his organization was exploring the possibility of a lawsuit.

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He criticized Secretary of State Mark Ritchie for overstepping his bounds. Minnesota Majority also tussled with the Secretary of State’s Office over the naming of two constitutional amendments before the 2012 elections.

“Online voter registration could work really well as long as it’s done right,” McGrath said, noting that there currently are “big question marks about that.”

GOP lawmakers, including the House and Senate minority leaders, sent a letter (PDF) to Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles asking him to review the secretary of state’s authority to create the online program. The office has so far argued that it possesses such authority under a law that authorizes electronic signatures and records to be used in many transactions.

The Republicans also raised data security concerns, noting a breach of private information at the state’s health insurance exchange last month.

“The recent data breaches at MNsure show it is more important than ever to make sure our private information is protected,” they wrote to Nobles in late September. “Minnesotans deserve a peace of mind knowing that their privacy should be protected in all aspects of government.”

Nobles cited the House Research Department report regarding the office’s legal authority to enact the program. But he also agreed with Republican lawmakers’ concerns about data security in state government systems.

The legislative watchdog, who is also looking into MNsure, said he would take a look at the online voter registration tool’s systems.

The Secretary of State’s Office defended its position in a statement Thursday and said security was critical to the system.

“We appreciate the thoughts and comments of the Legislative Auditor in regard to our online voter registration tool,” Ritchie said in the statement. “We look forward to further discussions about the system and how it is helping to modernize Minnesota’s voter registration process and how it was built with safety and security at top-of-mind. This tool is saving costs, minimizing inaccurate records and reflects the integrity of the state’s strong voting system.”

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Despite the House Research analysis that it would be “legally preferable” to have lawmakers authorize the program, office spokesman Nathan Bowie said the department would go to court to defend its move.

“We stand behind the online voter registration tool and are proud of the system that will reduce costs and minimize inaccuracies,” Bowie wrote in an email. “We are on firm legal ground and we will defend it in court.”

So far, nearly 900 applicants have used the system, including more than 100 new registrants and nearly 500 people who updated their information.