Minnesota feuds over online voter registration

October 17, 2013
Minnesotans could soon be registering to vote on this (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Minnesotans could soon be registering to vote on this (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A fight over online voter registration in Minnesota is becoming less about whether voters should have the ability to register over the Internet and more about whether Secretary of State Mark Ritchie (D) has overstepped his bounds.

If the measure is implemented, Minnesota would become the 15th state to allow voters to register online. Both red states and blue states have set up online registration systems. But Ritchie, who has rubbed some Republicans the wrong way by pushing for new voting rules, has to get permission from the legislature before he moves forward, members in both parties say.

“We don’t have concern about the policy, frankly. Other states have implemented it. We are interested in finding ways for people to register in a convenient manner,” said state Sen. David Hann (R), the Senate Republican leader.

Ritchie’s office contends he has the legislative authority to implement a new online voter registration system. In a letter to Republican legislative leaders delivered Wednesday, Deputy Secretary of State Beth Fraser said the office was permitted to launch online voter registration under existing law.

The Secretary of State’s office “has repeatedly added to the online tools available to voters — tools that similarly were authorized under existing law and about which we have never heard a complaint,” Fraser wrote. “Online voter registration and online absentee ballot applications are the logical next step.”

In the letter, first reported by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Fraser offered to set up meetings between legislative leaders and Ritchie in the coming days.

It’s not only Republicans who think Ritchie needs to apply the brakes. State Sen. Katie Sieben (D), the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party chair of the Senate Elections Committee, has questioned whether Ritchie has the authority to implement the new system, while Jim Nobles, the nonpartisan legislative auditor, has said he will take a look at the new program.

Some Republicans worry that a rash of recent breaches of private data collected by Minnesota, including consumer data collected by the state’s health exchange, MNsure, could bleed into the voter registration system, said state Rep. Tim Sanders (R). Sanders said the legislature wants to make sure the new online system would be secure before it’s implemented.

Fraser said the system was built with voter security in mind. The Secretary of State’s office even hired an IT security firm to test security.

Minnesota passed several election law changes this year, all of them by bipartisan margins. Even though Democrats hold majorities in both chambers, Gov. Mark Dayton (D) has said he would veto any election law changes that didn’t receive backing from both Democrats and Republicans. Hann, the Senate Republican leader, said Ritchie never even brought up online registration during the legislative session.

“This issue never came up. His office never suggested it. Nobody suggested it,” Hann said. “Why this wasn’t brought up two months ago during the session, I don’t know.”

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson · October 17, 2013