Law cited to justify online voter registration passed with no controversy

Mark Ritchie
St. Paul Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie holds up a computer to show its size while giving a presentation about the use of an electronic voter ID system at a State Government Finance meeting Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's contention that a 13-year-old law gave him the green light to launch a new online voter registration system is receiving support from two former legislators who sponsored the measure.

Former state Rep. Matt Entenza and former state Sen. Deanna Wiener, both Democrats say an online voter registration system Ritchie started does fall under the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act passed in 2000.

When Ritchie, a Democrat, announced the start of the system in September, he said the law required his office to provide online options for all paper transactions.

"We've been able to get quite a bit, but not all of our business services online, as mandated by that 2000 law," Ritchie said then. "We've been able to get some, but not all of our election services online as mandated by that law. But we're slowly but surely getting there."

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Republican lawmakers flatly reject Ritchie's interpretation. They argue the change should have received legislative approval.

"It does not give Secretary of State Ritchie the authority to do this," said Erick Kaardal, the lawyer for four GOP representatives and two election watchdog groups challenging the online system. "It's an old fashioned stretch."

Last week, Kaardal filed a lawsuit in Ramsey County, accusing Ritchie of a constitutional overreach.

"The fussing that's been going on over voter registration is mostly because there's a lot of political controversy always about anything that makes it easier for people to vote..."

In the 2000 legislative session, there was no hint of controversy. There was also no hint that the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act could have election law implications.

"Obviously with the growth of the Internet and electronic commerce, we in Minnesota need to make sure that our laws are in accord with the laws of other states dealing with the handing of electronic records and signatures," Entenza, then a state representative from St. Paul explained during a brief hearing in the House Commerce Committee.

Two months later, Wiener, then a state senator from Eagan, outlined the bill on the Senate floor.

"The act is designed to eliminate legal barriers to electronic commerce, assuring that electronic commerce will receive legal recognition on a par with paper transactions," Wiener said then.

The commerce-related bill passed unanimously in both bodies.

Wiener, who now lives in Oakdale, said she thinks Ritchie is correct. She said the bill clearly applied to the transactions of state government agencies.

"The question is, do you count the secretary of state's office as part of a state agency blanket? I guess I would because it's a signature that would be needed and signature that can be done electronically," she said. "If it's done for businesses, I don't understand why it couldn't be done for voters."

Entenza is even more certain.

"The fussing that's been going on over voter registration is mostly because there's a lot of political controversy always about anything that makes it easier for people to vote, and that's unfortunate," he said. "But I think the law is very clear."

But the Republican co-author of the bill disagrees. State Rep. Greg Davids, who was the Commerce Committee chairman in 2000, said the measure was never intended to cover voting. If it had been, Davids said, the bill also would have gone through the elections committee.

"This was a simple, bipartisan, noncontroversial bill having to do with signatures in business transactions, nothing to do with election law or online voter registration or anything like that," said Davids, R- Preston. "But apparently we have a loophole, and he's trying to go through a loophole here, and I think that loophole needs to be closed."

Nearly every state has adopted the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act.

Ritchie's recent action is probably allowable under the section dealing with government agencies, said Minneapolis lawyer Rob Beattie, who served as an American Bar Association advisor to the national panel that drafted the law. He also testified on behalf of the bill during House and Senate commerce committee hearings.

"It's interesting that when this provision was drafted, I think it was really more thought of as a defensive provision, to try and protect agencies from being required to do business electronically when they weren't really ready to," he said last week. "But the way it's written, it's a very broad, enabling provision."

However, Beattie stressed that the law gives state agencies a choice. He said Ritchie's assertion that he was obligated to allow for online voter registration "goes too far."