Ritchie proposes election reforms

Mark Ritchie holds a press conference
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie is proposing a series of election law reforms that he says will make the voting process run more smoothly.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

There will be some key differences in state election law if Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has his way. He said he's learned a lot after overseeing an election where nearly 3 million people voted and a historic statewide senate recount.

"I feel like the recount has not only given us a lot of information but it's also given us momentum to make some changes that will reflect how we're living and working now," he said.

Ritchie said one of those changes deals with early voting. He said it's clear that many people are already voting early, since the number of absentee ballots doubled from 2006 until 2008. Ritchie didn't explain exactly how the process would work but suggested that counties could establish voting centers where people could go and vote up to 30 days before Election Day.

"You would get a ballot that was specific to your precinct where you lived, you would fill it in and you would put it into the voting machine and then you were done," he said. "You weren't filling out an application for an absentee ballot, you weren't having something mailed to you that you mailed back. It was voting there and when you voted you were done."

Ritchie said early voting would prevent some of the mistakes that prevented absentee ballots from being counted in the senate election.

Ritchie said he's also looking to prevent those mistakes by requiring local elections officials to review any rejected ballots before the results are certified. Wrongly rejected ballots would be opened and counted under Ritchie's plan.

Speaking of the recount, Ritchie said he wants to raise the threshold that triggers a recount under state law. He said an automatic recount should occur if the margin is below one quarter of 1 percent of the vote in statewide and federal races, and any other races with turnouts greater than 25,000 voters.

Ritchie said one of the candidates would also have to request the recount for it to occur.

"If the candidates had to request it, it would present them with at least the thought 'am I going to spend the taxpayers' money or not?'" he said.

Ritchie also wants to hold the state's primary election earlier than September to relieve some heartburn for local elections officials.

St. Louis County Auditor Don Dicklich said an earlier primary would give elections officials more time to process ballots and send out absentee ballots to overseas voters.

"It's already very tight," he said. "Especially in a large county like St. Louis County. We have 164 precincts in St. Louis County so we have several different ballot types."

The other major portion of Ritchie's proposal involves voter registration. Ritchie wants to automatically register those who apply for a drivers license or a state photo ID.

Several Republicans said it's ironic that Ritchie wants to use the drivers license database for voter registration but doesn't want to require voters to present driver's licenses at polling places. Ritchie said that proposal is too expensive and would stop some people from voting.

Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who was secretary of state until Ritchie defeated her in 2006, disagreed.

"The biggest thing that I found is that increasing public confidence increases voter turnout. I focused on that for eight years," she said. "We had the highest voter turnout in the country in all of my eight years in office. It didn't depress anything."

Even though Kiffmeyer said she pushed for photo ID's at the polls during her time as secretary of state, it was not required under state law.

The bill requiring a photo ID to vote will be heard in a House committee Thursday. The chair of the House committee that oversees elections said he intends to hold hearings on Ritchie's proposals once the bills are introduced.

For his part, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said early voting would be worth exploring as long as there are protections to ensure voter integrity.

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