Minn. Senate fiasco could boost early voting efforts

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) âÄî It may not be too early to declare one winner in Minnesota’s Senate election fiasco: the folks who want the state to adopt early voting. With the race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken stuck in a morass of disputed absentee ballots, some people in the election business say it’s one more reason for Minnesota to join the trend of states that allow early voting. “One of the things we’ve learned from this race is there can be mistakes made, inadvertent errors made,” Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said. “With early voting, you walk in, your right to vote is established, you fill out your ballot and you’re done.” Minnesota doesn’t have that type of early voting. Here, and in many other states, voters may cast ballots ahead of time either in person or by mail through an absentee system that requires extra steps: signatures, multiple envelopes, a witness, and an application stating an excuse. Election officials and voting rights advocates have long argued that early voting is good for voters and reduces lines on Election Day. But some say there are lessons in Minnesota’s unresolved Senate race, where a trial is highlighting all the ways the absentee voting system can go wrong âÄî from seemingly mismatched signatures to voters being given the wrong ballot. “I think it will make states look closely at their own laws and procedures for handling absentee ballots,” said Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Oregon. Asked whether that would extend to early voting, Gronke said: “Definitely.” Officials know the extra steps in the absentee process make the system susceptible to human error. And as interest in early voting surges âÄî it spiked 27 percent in Minnesota from 2004 to 2008 âÄî elections officials would prefer to embrace the trend while also avoiding some of the mistakes. “People are already doing this. The laws should reflect what’s really going on in the community,” said Joe Mansky, a former state elections director who is now Ramsey County’s elections manager. Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race remains unsettled more than three months after the election, and disputes over absentees are a central reason. Coleman has argued that thousands of ballots were improperly rejected, and a parade of angry voters have testified that they thought they had filled out their ballots properly. The National Conference of State Legislatures says at least a dozen states have pending early voting legislation. That includes Maryland, where voters passed a constitutional amendment to allow lawmakers to make the change. In Minnesota, Missouri and Michigan, secretaries of state are seeking to move from in-person absentee voting to a no-excuse early voting system. Besides adding convenience for the voter, early voting can catch spoiled ballots or other voter errors, said Kelly Chesney, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office. “You actually know if your vote counted because you feed it into a machine. That’s not something that’s available to someone who votes absentee,” Chesney said. On the administrative side, early voting would reduce paperwork and likely cut elections officials’ workload, Minnesota’s Ritchie said. “We’d see a sharp reduction in absentee ballots, which would reduce the cost and increase integrity,” Ritchie said. In the Twin Cities suburb of Roseville, which saw 17 percent of its eligible voters cast absentee ballots either by mail or in person, elections coordinator Carolyn Curti said she knows some voters are probably bending the rules when it comes to having an excuse. “It’s on the news. They talk about the turnouts of early voting in other states, so people assume they can do it too,” Curti said. In the final days of the campaigns, lines for in-person absentee voting in Minneapolis and St. Paul sometimes stretched longer than those in precincts on Election Day. Not everyone supports the change. Some Republican lawmakers had pushed a bill that would require voters to show photo ID before casting a ballot. The measure by Rep. Tom Emmer failed in committee last week. Emmer, a Republican from Delano, said allowing early voting without an excuse could cut at the integrity of the system. He also said too much flexibility could cause people to put less importance on voting. “We don’t want to make it like they’re going to a convenience store to buy a doughnut,” Emmer said. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, says he’s open to the idea of early voting as long as it comes with protections against voter fraud. Meanwhile, a nonpartisan group that’s advocated early voting in the past hopes the Minnesota Senate race helps bring attention to an issue that might not otherwise have had a chance while lawmakers deal with a $4.8 billion budget deficit. “By having early voting, we can reduce the errors and make it less likely for these races to end up in court,” said Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause’s Minnesota chapter. “It’s an expensive process. We’ve now been without a U.S. senator for more than a month, and who knows how long that’s going to take.” Count Dwight Higgins Sr. as an early voting supporter. He and his son, Dwight Jr., stood in line for an hour to cast absentee ballots the day before Election Day when they discovered that both were registered as “Dwight Higgins Sr.” An election worker told them it would be fixed, but the elder Higgins later said he found that his son’s ballot was rejected. “It gets a little stressful standing in line, and it gets very stressful for the people handling the ballots,” Higgins said. “If it were less stressful and less people, then maybe they could have gotten it right.”