Amid U.S. Senate recount, Minnesota plans voting reform

Days before a special three-judge panel begins a trial to settle the outcome of Minnesota's U.S. Senate election, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie outlined a voting reform package designed to avoid future problems.


Days before a special three-judge panel begins a trial to settle the outcome of Minnesota's U.S. Senate election, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie outlined a voting reform package designed to avoid future problems.

Ritchie, meeting Friday with the Duluth News Tribune editorial board, said close elections and recounts will never be eliminated. But changes can be made to make the voting process, vote counting and vote recounting easier and more accurate, he said.

"We have more momentum for change now than we've ever had," said Ritchie, of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party.

Ritchie said he will support a package of voting and election law changes to be considered by the Legislature this session, with the goal of avoiding a repeat of the Al Franken-Norm Coleman dispute.

The proposals include:


* An earlier party primary, at least in August but possibly earlier. Ritchie said the current primary date, usually the second Tuesday in September, is so close to the November general election that any problems with the primary would delay the general election for weeks.

* Early voting. Several states allow voters to simply enter a central voting location and cast ballots early, as much as 45 days before the general election, rather than vote by mail-in absentee ballot or wait for Election Day.

* Easier, simpler absentee ballots. Ritchie said the current ballots are easily misunderstood and are "too busy," leading to simple mistakes that can nullify a vote.

* Central counting of absentee ballots. Currently, absentee ballots are held centrally until Election Day and then sent to individual precincts to be counted. Ritchie said those votes should be counted centrally to avoid transportation mishaps and make counting and recounting easier.

* Mandatory special elections for late catastrophic events. In 1990, the Republican candidate for Minnesota governor pulled out of the race with just days remaining. In 2002, U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash days before the election. In both cases, special supplemental ballots were printed and the election went on as usual with replacement candidates. But Ritchie said new federal voter access laws mandate that Minnesota require special elections for events that happen so close to Election Day.

* Online voter registration, along with automatic updates of voter registration based on U.S. Postal Service address changes and Minnesota driver's license applications.

Nearly 2.93 million Minnesotans voted on Nov. 4, the most ever in Minnesota, leading to a near-record 78 percent turnout of eligible voters. It was the highest voter turnout in the nation, five points ahead of second-place Wisconsin.

Despite the high number, Franken leads Coleman by just 225 votes after a weeks-long recount that Ritchie and the State Canvassing Board oversaw. A big issue in the pending election trial is how absentee ballots were rejected, accepted and counted -- or not.


Though it's out of his hands now, Ritchie said he expects the Coleman-Franken trial to be appealed by the loser to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which is part of the process established in Minnesota law. He said he hopes the issue is not pursued beyond that level.

"If it goes to the [U.S.] Supreme Court it starts to feel a lot like Florida," Ritchie said, referring to the contested U.S. presidential race in 2000.

Ritchie was less committal to proposals for runoff elections, such as in Georgia, where a tight three-way race in which no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote would be reduced to the top two candidates for a special election weeks later. Ritchie said a runoff would cost millions of dollars and wouldn't necessarily eliminate recounts.

He was also uncommitted regarding instant-runoff elections where voters are asked from the start to pick a second candidate in case no candidate receives more than 50 percent of all votes cast.

Ritchie said a Minneapolis plan for instant runoff has been approved by the courts and that Duluth and St. Paul are considering instant runoff for municipal elections.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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