Online voter registration spurs lawsuit

Legislators are suing Mark Ritchie for creating the system without legislative input.

Nathaniel Rabuzzi

Nearly 1,500 Minnesotans used Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s new online voter registration system last month, but the program’s legitimacy is under question.

Four Republican state legislators and two conservative interest groups filed a lawsuit last Monday against Ritchie, claiming the program was created illegally without legislative input.

The registration program, which debuted Sept. 26, allows voters to register or update their information through an online form instead of a paper application.

During the site’s initial debut, which lasted about three weeks,  the system registered 323 new voters statewide for the 2013 elections, and about 900 Minnesotans used the site to update their information.

The plaintiffs are requesting the program end completely and its users re-register before casting a ballot. Until the case is heard, nothing will change for voters who have used the site, according to a report by the Star Tribune.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, that supports Ritchie’s program, said in a Nov. 1 statement the system “makes the process of registering to vote easier and more streamlined.”

 “Republicans are simply being obstructionist in opposing online voter registration … I commend Mark Ritchie for a job well done to move Minnesota’s voting systems into the future,” he said in the statement.

Minnesota Majority executive director John Rouleau, a plaintiff in the case, said Ritchie went beyond his power by creating the system, and it should have gone through the legislative process.

“When we have big changes, like this would be to our elections system, it’s important that it’s done through the Legislature like it’s supposed to be,” Rouleau said.

According to state law, the Secretary of State is required to consult with local election officials while developing the state’s voter registration system.

Humphrey School of Public Affairs professor Doug Chapin said the case is a fight for balancing executive and legislative power.

“This could either be a model to follow or a cautionary tale for another state that wants to do it through executive action only,” he said.

Thirteen states have implemented full online voter registration programs within the last six years. Six more have passed the proper legislation and are in the process of creating programs.

“What’s interesting about this case in Minnesota is that in many ways it runs counter to this prevailing national trend toward more online registration,” Chapin said.

Around the country, both parties support online voter registration programs for the most part because they make it easier to vote, Chapin said.

“Lots of states are seeing online registration as a way to both expand the number of people that are eligible to vote by making it easier to register, but also increasing the quality of the list,” he said.

He said this case is unusual because the plaintiffs are asking for the program to stop altogether rather than just be evaluated.

The lawsuit won’t immediately affect the results from the 2013 election, the Associated Press reported. But if it’s successful, the suit could create issues in recent races that had close numbers, said Erick Kaardal, an attorney for the prosecution.

Minnesota Majority president Dan McGrath said in a statement last Monday that Ritchie’s office developed the program “behind closed doors, with no oversight.”

“If it was implemented correctly and had oversight and bipartisan support, it’s definitely something that we’d be interested in seeing what they come up with,” Rouleau said.

University of Minnesota law professor Herbert Kritzer said the case stems from a history of conservative state leaders opposing loose voter identification laws in Minnesota.

“This is sort of part of the Republican-Democratic war that is ongoing,” he said.

Republican legislators added an amendment to tighten the state’s voter identification laws for the 2012 ballot, but it failed.

Chapin said the lawsuit will bring online voter registration to the forefront during candidates’ campaigns to replace Ritchie, who isn’t running for re-election, next year.

Minnesota Majority successfully sued Ritchie last year over changes to the titles of the two constitutional amendments on the ballot.