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GOP lawmakers’ lawsuit aims to stop online voter registration

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Four Republican lawmakers and two election watchdog organizations filed a lawsuit today against the state and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie over a new online voter registration system.

The lawsuit filed in Ramsey County District Court claims Ritchie, a Democrat, exceeded his constitutional authority by launching the system without legislative approval and misused state funds. During a news conference, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, accused Ritchie of abusing his power as an elected official.

"The secretary of state has deliberately overstepped his authority by conducting actions and incurring expenditures of public resources without the necessary legal authority to do so," Drazkowski said. "How in the world can we stop the wasteful spending in government if at first we don't stop the illegal spending?"

Drazkowski said questions about the online registrations could result in legal challenges of next year’s statewide election results.

Tuesday's results in local elections also could be subject to legal challenge, claimed Dan McGrath, president of Minnesota Majority.

"The elections could be challenged because unauthorized voters cast ballots when they weren't legally registered," he said.

The other plaintiffs are State Reps. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria; Ernie Leidiger, R-Mayer; Jim Newberger, R-Becker; and the Minnesota Voters Alliance.

Other GOP lawmakers who are not part of the lawsuit have raised similar concerns. Even Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, has said he thought the Legislature should have approved the system.

Ritchie has previously contended that a 13-year-old law on electronic government transactions gave him authority to launch the new system. He repeated that assertion during an MPR News interview last week, calling the law a mandate.

"We must accept electronic signatures as written signatures," Ritchie said. "And in this case, because so many people, the people of the state are out there doing everything online, this is just one of many, and it's also one that I'm telling you, citizens love."

So far, more than 1,900 Minnesota voters have used the online option to register or to update an existing registration. The lawsuit contends those voters should be ordered to re-register the old fashioned way before casting a ballot.

The plaintiffs' attorney Erick Kaardal, alleged that Ritchie's unilateral action also was a misuse of public funds.

"That is money that he does not have to spend for this purpose," Kaardal said. "That's a misappropriation of state funds, and as we all know, the state constitution says if you misappropriate state funds that's embezzlement. It's a felony."

After the plaintiffs' news conference on Monday, Ritchie's office issued a written statement in which his spokesman defended the system and state spending on it.

"We don't comment on litigation, but we are on firm legal ground providing eligible voters with common sense tools based on Minnesota law," spokesman Nathan Bowie wrote. "Online voter registration follows a series of other digital services we have introduced to help Minnesotans, while saving taxpayers' money."

State Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley said he too believes existing state statues allow for online voter registration. Winkler, who serves on the House Elections Committee, said the lawsuit is an example of Republicans being obstructionists.

"Voters should just be thanking Mark Ritchie for coming forward with online voter registration, which I think everybody thinks is just a 'no brainer,'" Winkler said. "Whether the law says specifically he should create online voter registration or the law says that he has implied authority, the public doesn't really care. The thing that matters is that he’s creating a useful tool."

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