State officials look ahead to election law changes
ST. PAUL - Minnesota election experts say the state's election law is among the best in the country, but the protracted U.S. Senate race proves it can be improved.
The state needs to instill more confidence and stability into the absentee ballot process, Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, told a University of Minnesota forum Friday.
"It is highly irregular and inappropriate" to allow candidates' campaigns to reject specific absentee ballots, as current state law allows, Rest said. "That is really stepping over the line."
That is one matter Rest, chairwoman of a committee overseeing elections, said she hopes the Legislature tackles early next year, in time to make changes for the fall primary and general elections.
Friday's Humphrey Institute forum produced no dramatic solutions, but it did show that compromise between Republican and Democratic-Farmer-Laborite lawmakers is possible.
Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, complemented Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's running of the Senate recount, in which all 2.9 million ballots were examined.
But Emmer said he remained concerned that election officials have not been able to confirm that 17,000 voters last year actually were registered to vote. He said that needs to be fixed.
"We had voters who were deceased on voter rolls," he said.
A solution to that problem, Ramsey County election chief Joe Mansky said, is better use of technology. He said that using other state records, such as from the driver's license database and Health Department death records, could help election workers remove names of dead voters and those who have moved.
Forum panelists appeared to agree that the absentee ballot process could be simplified. Absentee disputes stretched the Senate contest into the state's longest-ever race.
Norm Coleman, whose Senate term expired in early January, took the election to court over what he called improperly rejected absentee ballots. While he lost the case in the Minnesota Supreme Court, the recount and court case that followed displayed to Minnesotans a complicated process absentee voters must go through, a process that includes lots of opportunities for mistakes and different procedures in each precinct.
Mansky, an election official for 25 years, said there normally are no contested absentee ballots. But he suggested that in light of the Senate race's problems that absentee ballots be counted by the more highly trained county election staffs instead of in each of the state's 4,131 precincts.
Ritchie said he fears that a lengthy contest such as occurred in the Senate race could crop up in one of the major parties' governor primary contests next year. Since primary elections are held about two months before the general election, there would not be time to complete a recount and a court case before the Nov. 2 election, he said.
Both major parties have a dozen or more people either running or thinking about running for governor. Some of them are well financed, which Ritchie said could lead to a candidate taking a close primary election to court.
Emmer countered that such a challenge never has happened in a primary, and he doubted anything needs to be done to state law.
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.