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Beating judge’s deadline, Minnesota Senate sends online registration bill to Dayton

Democrats who control the Legislature faced a midnight deadline Tuesday that would suspend the state’s current system of online registration. 

Gov. Mark Dayton: "Fifty-nine Republican House members voted for the bill, which is 66 percent of all the Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature. That certainly qualifies the bill as bipartisan."
MinnPost file photo by James Nord

Online voter registration is proof that lawmakers can move quickly to pass policy if facing a hard-and-fast deadline.

The Minnesota Senate cleared a proposal Tuesday afternoon to set up a system of online voter registration in the state. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said he plans to sign the bill into law as soon as he recieves it Tuesday evening. House lawmakers previously passed the same proposal on a bipartisan vote.

“I am very pleased that this bill passed with bipartisan support in both bodies, and I look forward to signing it into law today,” Dayton said in a statement after the Senate vote. “All-told, 62 of the 89 Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature voted in favor of the bill.” 

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Democrats who control the Legislature faced a midnight deadline Tuesday that would suspend the state’s current system of online registration. Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann ruled Monday that Secretary of State Mark Ritchie overstepped his authority when he unilaterally implemented the program last year.

Republicans and Democrats roundly criticized Ritchie’s move to implement the system on his own after an online voter registration bill initially failed get support in the Legislature. Republicans cried foul and filed the lawsuit, despite mostly supporting the policy that allows online voter registration.

More than 3,600 people have used the system since last September. Guthmann ruled that those registrations would remain valid.

“This tool has already proven its ability to reduce taxpayer costs by modernizing the work of local government,” Ritchie said in a statement. “Online registration has been embraced by Minnesota voters who appreciate the security and ease of the process.”

The bill goes into effect the day after the governor signs it into law, meaning there could be only a short gap between the midnight suspension of Ritchie’s voter registration program and the new legislatively approved online tool.

After more than two hours of debate, the Senate passed online voter registration on a 41-24 vote. Republicans criticized Democrats for rushing the proposal through the process.  Senators accepted the House version of the bill due to time constraints, despite initial differences between their two bills.

The original Senate bill had more provisions that ensured the security of citizens’ private data being used by the Secretary of State’s Office, Republicans said, and they offered a series of failed amendments to strengthen those provisions.  

“I favor online voter registration — I think it’s a good idea,” said Sen. Scott Newman, a lead Republican on election issues in the upper chamber. “I sincerely believe the Senate version of this bill is superior and the House version is inferior with respect to our data security.”

Newman and other Republicans pointed to recent state-related data breaches in public safety, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and a recent breach with the new state-run health insurance exchange, MNsure.

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“Our state agencies are failing us,” Newman said. “The idea of data privacy is almost like a full employment act for lawyers.”

The proposal would also allow citizens to apply for an absentee ballot through the Secretary of State’s website. In both cases, citizens must provide a driver’s license number, a Minnesota-issued ID card number or the last four digits of their social security number and an email address in order to register online.

“I feel that it’s important for the state to establish an online voter registration system,” DFL Sen. Katie Sieben, the author of the bill, said. “I think voters across the state of Minnesota want the convenience of being able to register to vote online…I don’t see any need to delay this further.”

DFL Rep. Steve Simon, the lead on the issue in the House, said he was “proud” legislators passed the bill so quickly after the “court decision effectively ended it.” “The result is greater convenience for eligible voters, savings for taxpayers, and a stronger democratic process,” Simon, a candidate for secretary of state, added.